Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Middle East protests: "Every uprising is different"

Taken from VRT, © Belga
This morning (Wednesday, 11th May 2011), the VRT published a very interesting article written by Wouter Carton, discussing the inconsistent attitudes of superpowers concerning the current uprisings in the Middle East. Here is a translation to English.

For a chronological overview of the protests, ordered by country: clickety.

Every uprising is different

Why do regional superpowers in the Middle East support demonstrations in one country while they condemn those in another, or even help to suppress those demonstrations? And why does the West intervene rigorously in Libya but not in Syria?

After the oustings of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, protests broke out in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. But questions have arisen about the inconsistent attitude of the West regarding these protests, and even more about the reactions of regional superpowers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

High level game of chess in the Middle East

A first and remarkable example is Saudi Arabia. As one of the few countries in the region, there were hardly any demonstrations. But the Saudi regime is not silent. Those who take a closer look, see a paradox.

Taken from VRT, © AP
Saudi Arabia supports the demand of the protesters in the neighbouring country of Yemen. Together with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Yemen is not a member, the Saudis insist that president Ali Abdullah Saleh resigns quickly. Saleh is a moderate Shi'ite.

But towards Bahrain, the attitude of Saudi Arabia is totally different. After weeks of demonstrations, the Sunni regime of the small island state requested help from the GCC. Saudi Arabia immediately sent about 500 soldiers, just like the United Arab Emirates. Since then, the protests in Bahrain are over, making it the only country to date which successfully quelled the protests. But despite Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's claims, it was definitely not only Shi'ites that took the streets in Bahrain.

Taken from VRT, © Belga
Iran also has an ambivalent attitude towards the protests in the region. In the beginning, Iran was cautiously positive about the Jasmin Revolution in Tunisia and the political revolution in Egypt. The rebellion in Bahrain was encouraged by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But concerning Syria, a close ally of Tehran, Iran is in line with the statement of the regime: the uprisings are a conspiracy of foreign, radical elements and therefore cracking down on them is justified.

The ambivalent attitude of Iran and Saudi Arabia show that the wave of protests could deepen the conflict between the Sunni and Shi'ite groups in the region. Religion is not the most important reason of conflict, but old alliances and national interests are.

What about the West?

The way the West has reacted on the events in the Middle East has not always been consistent.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States started the military intervention in Libya, in order to avoid a massacre in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Taken from VRT, © AP
But while Saudi tanks and troops bring the Bahrain demonstrators to heel, it is very quiet in Washington, London and Brussels. The regimes in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia are important allies of the United States. One reason why is their hostile stance against Iran.

The situation in Syria raises even more questions about the mindset of the West. Just like Libya, for long Syria has been considered a "rogue state" by the US. And just like the Libyan leader Gaddafi, the Syrian president doesn't hesitate to use brute force against his own population, which already has caused hundreds to perish. Many therefore wonder why there is no action against Syria besides diplomatic sanctions.
"Libya is a unique situation", says Jay Carney, the spokesman for the White House. "For Syria, we have to choose out of a whole series of direct sanctions." An intervention in Syria seems excluded because of numerous reasons and considerations.

Taken from VRT, © Belga
The League of Arab States can live with a military action against Libya, but Syria has a lot more influence within the League. The location of the country is also important: European countries and the US are petrified to intervene in the heart of the Middle East. There is also hardly any support for a new intervention in yet another Arabic country amongst the European and American population. This implies a totally different explanation: Libya simply needed an intervention sooner than Syria.

Nevertheless it is alarming that the diplomatic sanctions of the EU and the US can't guarantee that they will prevent president Assad from cracking down on the revolts in his country.

With a military operation, the West would also be more than ever on a collision course with Iran, the faithful ally of Assad. Syria has many friends, but even more enemies in the region. The country is a key actor in the fragile balance of power in the Middle East. Officially, though Israel might still be at war with Syria, president Assad's tone towards Israel was always restrained.

The attitudes of both the West and the countries of the Middle East might seem very inconsistent, but they all revolve around the continuation of international relations, enmities and alliances as they existed before the wave of revolt flooded the Middle East.

Wouter Carton

Edit: thanks to Mandy for improving my English

Update 15th May: The BBC has published a similar debate: "Why UN acted over Libya and Ivory Coast - but not Syria", noting that it was doubtful on Libya as Russia and China were at first restrained "in principle to getting involved in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation" until the Arab League put a formal request for intervention:
If you get a regional organisation pressing for a particular course of action in the council, then that has a disproportionate influence.
--Sir Mark Lyall Grant, British Ambassador at the UN

Update 16th May: Mark Mardell, North America editor for the BBC asks in his piece Arab Spring headaches for Barack Obama: ""When Israel kills demonstrators is that the same as when Syria or Libya does the same?"

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