Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Arab Spring deals Iran losing cards

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TEL AVIV -- Iran has emerged as the "big loser" of the Arab Spring.

When Iran saw the fall of the pro-western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it believed that its road to dominance in the Arab world was paved. But it soon discovered that the Arab masses were not eager to replace their autocratic and corrupt leaders with intolerant and more repressive Shiite Muslim leaders.

It's obvious that Iran underestimated the depth of resentment the masses have of Shiite dominance in the Arab world.

This became crystal clear when Iran broke the sensitive balance between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon.

At that moment, Iran lost its ability to influence developments in Syria, where a solid Sunni majority refused to continue to be governed by a small Shiite-Alaouite minority headed by the Assad dynasty.

This was indeed the greatest setback to Iran's foreign policy goals.

At the beginning of the Syrian revolt 100 months ago, Tehran initially provided guidance and technology to the forces of President Bashar Assad.

Its main concern was to assure a safe passage via Syria of arms and Iranian advisers to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The swift changes in the Arab world led to a reshuffle of the cards in the Sunni world. Its leadership moved from Cairo to Saudi Arabia.

Once the Shiite rebellion in Bahrain was put down, the Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council took the lead in resisting Iranian subversion.

It spearheaded the Arab League's economic sanctions against Syria, stood behind the West's freeze of Syrian assets in the U.S. and Europe and imposed an embargo on investments in Syria.

Saudi Arabia was very much opposed to a Libya-style military intervention in Syria. It feared the precedent of regime change through direct military intervention. (This also is the reason for the Arab League's opposition to Turkish military intervention in Syria.)

As a result, defections from the Syrian army are still very limited. So far, it is estimated that 10,000 army officers and soldiers have defected from an army of 250,000. This is insufficient to tip the balance against Bashar Assad.

Another element that bodes well for Assad's survival is Russian opposition to any direct western or Arab military intervention. From the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, Russia made it clear that it opposes any such move.

To prove its sincerity, Russia continued to supply contracted arms to the Syrian army. In military manoeuvres in December, the Syrian army -- for the first time -- showed publicly new and modern versions of missiles that were recently delivered by Russia.

Among others, Russia replaced the old ground-to-air SA-6 missiles with the newest version of the SA-17. Moscow also supplied Syria with the shore-to-sea Yakhont missile that can reach most of the Israeli coast down to the Gaza Strip.

Russia continues to consider Syria a strategic partner and views with great concern the possible collapse of Assad's regime. It advises Assad to make political reforms, release political prisoners and allow a multi-party political system to rival the Baath party, which has governed Syria for the last 40 years.

Indeed, the Baath party is due to hold its annual convention next month to study and approve political reforms. Assad is now convinced this is his last and only option if he hopes to remain in power.

Two regional players are watching very closely the developments in Syria -- Israel and Hezbollah.

Israel knows Assad has no military option against the Jewish state. But Israel is very concerned about the transfers of Iranian arms to Hezbollah via Syria. Israel wants this supply to stop and believes that since the Syrian-Iranian alliance is losing momentum, it will not be difficult for Assad to stop the Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah.

Sunni Muslims and Christians in Lebanon also want to put an end to these arms deliveries, which Hezbollah uses to perpetuate its control of the Lebanese scene.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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