The Battle for Syria
When the United States government and al Qaeda agree on something, you know that can’t be a good thing.
In this case, they both want Syrian President Bashir Assad to step down. Bizarrely, that’s not all they agree on. On July 11, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “President Assad is not indispensable. … Our goal is to see that the will of the Syrian people for a democratic transformation occurs” (emphasis added throughout).
Responding to America’s overtures to the anti-government protesters, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri warned the pro-democracy activists not to deal with America. America would only corrupt them, he said. He called Assad, however, a “leader of criminal gangs,” an “aggressor,” an “oppressor,” and a “traitor” to his people. He applauded the pro-democracy activists’ efforts to teach Assad a “lesson.” And he hailed Syrian protesters as “mujahideen,” or holy warriors.
Both America and al Qaeda are pushing for democracy in Syria. Yet for all the talk, that is mostly all it is. Neither group has much influence in Syria.
Syria’s future will be determined by other powers more influential than the U.S. and al Qaeda. Since the country sits near the heart of the world’s most important but increasingly volatile oil-exporting region, the resolution of Syria’s Arab Spring will not only impact regional stability but the world economy. Plus, Syria’s Arab Spring could easily morph into Israel’s dark winter if the Jewish state ends up with an even more radical regime as a “peace partner.”
The pressure for regime change in Syria is coming from both inside and outside—but not necessarily from where you might expect.
From within, the pressure for change comes from its 75 percent Sunni majority, who are upset with the ruling Alawite minority of President Bashir Assad. This is not unexpected. Sunnis are both economically disadvantaged and politically unrepresented despite their vast majority. The recent protests are the product of years of repression and in some cases outright persecution.
Now the protests seem to be intensifying—as is Assad’s crackdown. Sunday was perhaps the bloodiest day so far.
Reports indicate that another 120 people were killed as troops besieged the city of Hama for a second day. Tanks shelled the city of 800,000 people as protesters vowed not to allow themselves to be slaughtered, as happened during the last revolt against Assad’s father in 1982. Hama controls the main highway connecting the capital city of Damascus with Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
On Monday, an intense gun battle was also reportedly raging in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, and soldiers backed by tanks took control of the town of Houla in the central province of Homs.
The protests are no longer just contained to the far south, and it is harder for Assad to blame the uprisings on agitators from Jordan and Israel. As the protests have grown in strength, and greater numbers of military defections continue to occur, there is a growing sense that Assad may be starting to lose control of events. It is estimated that 1,600 civilians have now been killed since the largely “peaceful” uprising began in mid-March.
The internal turmoil has opened up Syria to exploitation by outside powers. This is not unknown by Assad, but there may be little he can do about it. If Assad wants to stay in power, he needs friends—and that comes with a price.
With the United States winding down its presence in the Middle East and evacuating its troops, the region is fragmenting into competing power blocs. Syria is caught right in the center of the power struggle.
These power blocs can be categorized as those aligned with Iran and those reacting against Iran’s growing strength.
Currently, Syria is in the Iranian camp (along with Iraq and, increasingly, Egypt). Syria is Iran’s most important ally, and Iran will do all it can to keep it in its sphere of influence.
Now that Syria is experiencing internal turmoil, Iran is trying to exploit this vulnerability to strengthen this alliance and thus its foothold near Lebanon and Israel’s northern border. When the protests initially broke out, Iran sent Bashir Assad both Hezbollah fighters and crack Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp members to help stomp out the uprisings. According to Stratfor, this sent a dual message that Iran could not only help Assad but also hurt him if he chose to realign himself with other Sunni states in an effort to gain their assistance in pacifying the protesters. Iranian meddling has thus far proved effective—but in the end, meddling of any kind also tends to produce a backlash.
Iran is currently using America’s withdrawal from the region and the general unrest as a once-in-a-lifetime-type opportunity to destabilize its Sunni Arab rivals and assert its regional hegemony. Iran’s virtual takeover of Iraq is one example, as is the battle for Bahrain and the world’s largest oil fields.
Attempting to oppose Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East is a Saudi-led coalition of nations.
“Saudi Arabia has an ambition and so does Iran,” noted Bassel Salloukh, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese American University, in 2009. “Syria stands in the middle.”
Saudi Arabia has been working on shifting Syrian loyalties for years. It too looks on the current crisis as a game-changing opportunity.
Saudi Arabia’s current plan of action hinges on its greatest strength: oil exports. Earlier this year it lent Syria $73 million to construct a new power plant to alleviate growing electricity shortages. The message from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members (which now include Jordan) is that they are more than willing to help Assad overcome his financial difficulties, as long as his regime takes the necessary and visible actions to distance itself from Iran.
But perhaps the greatest pressure for change in Syria is coming via its neighbor Turkey.
As it is for Saudi Arabia, it is in Turkey’s strategic interest to build a coalition of states to act as a counterbalance to Iran.
This fits well with the views of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recip Erdogan, who seems to envision Turkey as the leader of the Arabs. Coming to power in 2002, he has since been accused of seeking to establish a new Ottoman empire.
With a fast-growing economy, a rising population and the largest military in Europe, Turkey has become a formidable power. With its nato ties, it also has access to many tier-one economic and military powers not available to some of its Middle Eastern rivals. “For the first time since the end of World War i, Ankara is beginning to revisit its historical role as a regional powerhouse,” wrote Stratfor (June 8, 2010).
America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rejection by the European Union due to its Muslim religion, have compelled Turkey to step out on its own.
Although its first small steps saw it begin to subordinate its defense agreement with Israel and make overtures to Iran, events in Syria are now setting up a clash with the Persians.
Turkey has been working closely with Syria to help manage the fallout from the protests there. Syria is relying on Turkey to prevent nato intervention (like in Libya), while Turkey wants to make sure the violence does not spread from Syria’s Kurdish population into its own. Toward this end, Erdogan is publicly insisting on enough reforms to satisfy the protesters, but not so many as to cause Assad to lose power.
However, behind the scenes, there is evidence that Turkey is pushing for much more dramatic changes. According to the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, Turkey has been actively interfering in the revolt against Assad. Meanwhile, Turkish humanitarian relief agencies are hosting Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey.
Stratfor confirms that the “Assad regime may have reason to be wary of Turkey’s long-term intentions for Syria” (April 7). According to Stratfor analysts, Erdogan’s party wants Syria’s Islamist organizations to gain political space—with the goal of becoming their eventual sponsor. For now, Syria needs Turkish support, so Ottoman influence in Syria will probably grow.
“Erdogan’s clear aim is to replace Iran as Syria’s overlord in a post-Assad Syria,” says Glick.
So who will win in Syria?
In March, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan told his Turkish counterpart that the Saudi royals “want to see Turkey as a strategic partner of Saudi Arabia” (Stratfor, March 4).
Will the Turks join Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Cooperation Council (gcc) in opposing Iran? By working together, they would certainly form a much more formidable front.
The longer and more violent the Syrian protests get, the more an Arab coalition including Syria and joined with Turkey looks probable.
In fact, this is exactly what the Bible predicts will happen. Psalm 83 gives us an insight into what is coming in the very near future.
This Psalm contains a prophecy of a group of nations that ally themselves together with the purpose of destroying Israel. The Psalm 83 nations are distinct from a more powerful region-wide dominating power (the Iran-led camp). This prophecy is fulfilled after a German-led European power conquers Iran and its allies (Daniel 11:40-43).
Psalm 83:5-8 list who is in this non-Iranian alliance that readily allies itself with the invading Europeans. “For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against thee: The tabernacles of Edom, and the Ishmaelites; of Moab, and the Hagarenes; Gebal, and Ammon, and Amalek; the Philistines with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assur [Assyria or Germany] also is joined with them: they have holpen the children of Lot. Selah.” Here are the modern names of these nations, as taught at Ambassador College under Herbert W. Armstrong: Edom—Turkey; Ishmaelites—Saudi Arabia; Moab—Jordan; Hagarenes—anciently dwelt in the land known as Syria today; Gebal and Tyre—Lebanon; Ammon—also Jordan. This is not extremely precise, but it gives a good general idea of where these nations are today. The small Arab nations on the Arabian Peninsula making up the gcc would biblically speaking be considered part of Saudi Arabia because of their Ishmaelitish origin.
The reason Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia are missing from the Psalm 83 list is that they are allied with Iran when it is conquered by a German-led Europe (Daniel 11:42-43).
As we see Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other gcc member states seek to incorporate more allies to protect themselves from Iran, also watch for them to begin reaching out to Germany and the Europeans for protection.
Additionally, watch for a change in Syrian politics. Bible prophecy indicates that at the time of the Daniel 11 European invasion, Syria and Lebanon will not be allied with Iran. Since in many ways Lebanon is controlled by Syria, watch for it to eventually abandon Iran.
Syria’s Arab Spring is not over yet. America is shrinking in influence. Iran is becoming the undisputed king of the region, and new allies are banding together for protection. Prophecy is being fulfilled, and despite the troubles ahead, it is all leading to the best news ever: the return of Jesus Christ.
For more information on the Psalm 83 alliance, read “A Mysterious Prophecy” by Gerald Flurry.