The Battle for Syria

An Arab Spring may be taking root, but don’t be fooled. What’s growing here is different than what you might think.
From the October 2011 Trumpet Print Edition

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. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, while calling Assad a “leader of criminal gangs” and a “traitor” to his people, has applauded the pro-democracy activists’ efforts to teach their president a “lesson.” Meanwhile, America is openly rooting for a “democratic transformation.” Both America and al Qaeda, ironically, are pushing for people power.

Yet for all the talk, neither group has much influence in Syria. That country’s future will be determined by powers more influential than either of them.

Since Syria sits near the heart of the world’s most important but increasingly volatile oil-exporting region, the resolution of this conflict will affect regional stability and even 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.

Popular Uprising

From within, the pressure for change comes from its 75 percent Sunni majority, who are upset with the ruling Alawite minority of President Assad. This is not unexpected. Sunnis are both economically disadvantaged and politically unrepresented despite being the vast majority. The recent protests are the product of years of repression and in some cases outright persecution.

Now the protests are intensifying—as is Assad’s bloody crackdown. On July 30, for example—perhaps the bloodiest day to that point—reports indicated that 120 people were killed as troops besieged Hama, a city of 800,000. The following day, 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. In fact, there are signs that tension is spilling over into Assad’s power centers. On August 30, one of the first protests in the economically important city of Allepo took place. Although the demonstration was largely peaceful, hundreds of people took to the streets. The business-class residents of Damascus and Allepo have remained loyal to Assad thus far, but if proposed international sanctions kick in, there is sure to be more tension, even in Assad’s strongholds.

The United Nations reports that more than 2,200 people have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March. As the protests have grown in strength, greater numbers of military defections are occurring. There is a growing sense that Assad may be losing control of events.

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 he wants to stay in power, he needs friends—and that comes with a price.

Two Blocs Forming

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 Corps members to help stomp them out. By Stratfor’s reckoning, 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 in Saudi Arabia.

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.

Another Formidable Power

Like 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 Erdoğan, who seems to envision Turkey as the leader of the Arabs. In power since 2002, he has 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 last year.

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, while Turkey wants to make sure the violence does not spread from Syria’s Kurdish population into its own. Toward this end, Erdoğan 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. For now, Syria needs Turkish support, so Ottoman influence in Syria will probably grow. But according to Stratfor analysts, Erdoğan’s party wants Syria’s Islamist organizations to gain political space—with the goal of becoming their eventual sponsor. “Erdoğan’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.”

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. For more than 15 years, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has said that biblical prophecy foretells that the Middle East will fracture into two rival alliances. In his 1996 booklet The King of the South, Mr. Flurry indicated that despite contrary outward appearances, Syria would eventually split from its Iranian allies.

Fifteen years later, that prophecy looks like it is about to be fulfilled.

What happens in Syria will almost certainly affect Lebanon too, since in many ways, Lebanon is controlled by Syria. As is brought out in Mr. Flurry’s booklet, Lebanon is prophesied to eventually abandon its relationship with Iran too.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other gcc member states are seeking to draw more allies together in order to protect themselves from Iran. Next, watch for them to begin reaching out to Germany and the Europeans for protection—that too is prophesied in your Bible.

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.