Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Syria Isn't About Syria

Bahrain and Syria both have repressive governments and both had uprisings in 2011, the United States and Saudi Arabia stopped one but are continuing the other, showing democracy and humanitarian concerns don't shape foreign policy, national self-interest does.

In February 2011 protesters took to the streets in Bahrain calling for greater political freedom. In response the government imposed martial law, imprisoned and tortured citizens, and killed protesters. Saudi Arabia eventually intervened and sent soldiers to stop the protest. And they did, with extreme violence. The United States was criticized for ignoring the repressive measures and doing nothing to stop them.

Similarly in March 2011 protesters, this time partly funded by the United States, took to the streets in Syria and also called for greater political freedom. At the time the protesters only demanded "immediate release of political prisoners, lifting of emergency and martial law, and withdrawal of intelligence forces from Syrian cities." To much surprise the government complied. Protests continued however, and, again like Bahrain, citizens were imprisoned, beaten, and some were killed.

Just as it did with the civil unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has intervened, but this time instead of opposing and cracking down on protesters Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and NATO are sending money and weapons to the rebels.

What explains the different reactions by the Americans and Saudi Arabians to these two uprisings? Three reasons: Islam, Israel, and Iran.

Where Bahrain is governed by Sunnis, Syria is governed by Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam. The Islamic world is divided, for the most part, between Sunnis and Shiites, tensions have always existed between the two often erupting in sectarian violence. Thus it's not a coincidence that Sunni governed Saudi Arabia helped Bahrain's similarly constituented government brutally repress its uprising while financially and materially supporting Sunni and other rebels in Syria against the domestic Shiite government. Religion is also the reason for the Syrian government's close ties with Shiite dominated Iran.

Syria's proximity to Israel is also a central factor in why the United States and others, who though ignored Bahrain, have this time decided to act. Syria has long been a conduit of munitions between Iran and the terrorist organization Hizbollah in Lebanon and replacing Syrian President Basher Al-Assad could permanently severe that supply chain.

Iran, by itself, is probably the most pressing reason for why the United States has led the charge for regime change in Syria. Because of heightened concerns towards Iran's nuclear program, its proximity to Israel, its funding of terrorist organizations, and its large oil reserves, the American government has cause to destabilize Iran's neighbours and to severe ties between it and potential allies. Iran's size, in terms of population and military have left the United States little other option

The United States, Israel and other countries have for years been preferring indirect methods over direct ones to weaken Iran, including sanctions, funding domestic opposition groups, assassinating nuclear scientists and engineering unprecedented system-wide computer viruses, Stuxnet and Flame being the most famous.

Unlike Bahrain, there are many reasons why the United States, still the world's sole superpower, should be, and is, attentively interested in Syria's uprising. Though those reasons are many, democracy and humanitarian concerns for the Syrian people aren't among them.

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