The Arab Spring is far from over

At least four major regional struggles may be determined within the year: the Iranian nuclear crisis, the civil war in Syria, the struggle for the character of the new regime in Egypt, and the broader struggle for the character of the Arab world.

By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
The Revolutionary Guard in Iran.
The fact that this year regimes in this region and North Africa are not toppling one after the other, as they did in 2011, is not an indication that the Arab shakeup has stopped. The trends are still dramatic, acute and sometimes surprising. Many of the events are still having significant repercussions, both direct and indirect, on Israel’s regional situation.

The sequence of events on Wednesday – a seemingly random day last week – attests to this fact.

In Iran, stormy demonstrations erupted in the Tehran bazaar to protest the effects that international sanctions are having on the economic situation there, and to demand that the ayatollahs’ regime stop investing billions in aid to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In Syria itself, car bombs went off in Aleppo, and Turkey attacked targets in the north of the country in response to the fatal shooting of its citizens from the Syrian side of the border; while the Israel Defense Forces shut down the Hermon site after a suspicious group of Syrians approached the border. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, a mysterious explosion at a Hezbollah weapons depot killed seven people a few days after a senior officer in the organization was killed in the fighting in Syria.

The IDF’s intelligence branch, in its assessment for 2013, describes it as “a volatile year of struggles.” The Middle East, say military intelligence experts, is awash in combustible fumes. At least four struggles are currently underway in the region and could be determined within a year: the Iranian nuclear crisis; the civil war in Syria; the struggle for the character of the new regime in Egypt; and the broader struggle for the character of the Arab world, which is subdivided into innumerable secondary struggles – between the old regimes and the oppositions, the moderates and the radicals, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. In addition, it is not at all clear which way the wind is blowing in the West Bank and whether the relative quiet that has prevailed there in recent years will indeed continue.

Desperation in Syria

The civil war in Syria is the most striking example of the current reality. All the early assessments concerning the collapse of Assad’s regime have been proven wrong thus far. The sides look as though they have found themselves in a paralyzing duel, in which, for the moment, no side is managing to prevail over its adversary, as every week the violence between them becomes crueler and more desperate.

At the same time, the assessment by all the intelligence organizations – an assessment shared by most of the intelligence organizations in the West – still stands: The Assad regime ultimately will collapse. Syria itself is now split among regions under relative control by the regime (key parts of Damascus and the other major city, Aleppo, the Alawite coastal strip mostly in the north ), areas controlled by opposition organizations, armed groups or minorities like the Kurds (in the north and the east of the country ) and no man’s lands not under any real control. In the areas controlled by the opposition are autonomies that do not rely on anything from the central government: They are providing inhabitants with water and electricity, insofar as possible, and at a number of crossing points along the border with Turkey they are even collecting customs duties.

After the rebels’ attack in Damascus at the beginning of July, in which a number of top people in President Bashar Assad’s regime were killed, Assad decided on what Military Intelligence is calling “convergence.” If until then Assad had waged war over every plot of land – a war that wore down and exhausted his army due to long lines of friction with rebels along the length and breadth of the country – the president has, since July, been focusing on defending what he sees as the main elements in his regime. Aleppo is more important to Assad than Homs, Damascus is more important than Aleppo.

Assad has been more effective (and murderous ) than could initially have been predicted, and at this stage he is delaying his opponents’ victory. Even though the Free Syrian Army, the largest and most prominent of the opposition organizations, has become a kind of brand of the resistance, it still seems the organization will not create a critical mass with the ability to quickly depose Assad. Nor has any figure emerged as yet from the opponents’ camp who looks as though he could take the reins of governing all of Syria into his hands.

Descent into anarchy

At the current pace, one scenario put forward by intelligence – the gradual descent of Syria into anarchy and disintegration, in which the central government institutions continue to collapse as local agendas gain the upper hand – now seems the most likely one.

From Israel’s perspective, even though it is not admitting this out loud, there are also advantages to the existing situation. The threat of a surprise attack by the Syrian army in the Golan Heights, which gave IDF commanders sleepless nights during the four decades after the Yom Kippur War, has vanished as though it never existed. It is doubtful whether the Syrian army is capable at this time of initiating any conventional attack that isn’t focused on the indiscriminate slaughter of its own citizens. It will be many years before the Syrians rehabilitate their operational capacity.

At the same time, the clear instability in Syria is requiring a different kind of operational readiness from the IDF, and in particular the entire Israeli intelligence community must now keep track of completely different aspects of developments in the neighboring country to the northeast. The concern about chemical weapons slipping into other hands – those of Hezbollah or Sunni opposition groups connected to Al-Qaida – is the best-known example. However, Israel must also keep its eye on long-range missiles, advanced seaborne missiles and new anti-aircraft systems. Since Syria is hoarding the largest weapons store in the region, this is a very difficult task.

Bad news for Iran

An item recently published in The Times of London has aroused a certain amount of excitement in the Israeli media. According to the report, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was furious at the head of the Quds Force commando in the Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Suleimani, for not making good on his promise that the massive Iranian aid to Syria would succeed in turning things around and bringing Assad victory over his opponents. Iran, according to The Times, has already invested $1 billion in the Syrian tyrant’s failing struggle, and in the top echelons in Tehran there has been a real rift surrounding disappointment in the results in Syria. The report, regrettably, is apparently not entirely accurate. Iran is still invested in Syria and will continue to invest in aid to Assad. There is also no knowledge of a rift between Khamenei and Suleimani. However, the continuing bloodshed in Damascus is indeed failing to bring good news the ayatollahs’ regime at a time when they are encountering troubles at home.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even admitted this week, uncharacteristically, that the enemies of the Iranian regime have won a certain amount of success due to the fact that sanctions have worsened Iran’s economic situation. The day after this admission, footage from Iran was smuggled to the West documenting angry demonstrations in the Tehran bazaar regarding the cost of living.

While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s forecast concerning the possibility of the regime’s collapse within less than a year, in advance of the next presidential elections in June 2013, is an optimistic one, there is no doubt that things are starting to move. A devaluation of 30 percent in the worth of the Iranian rial is no trivial matter, especially as the United States and the European Union are preparing for an additional wave of sanctions toward the end of the year.

“Iran in 2013 is still an open story,” says a top intelligence source in Israel. “The effect of the sanctions is evident and considerable. They are felt by the citizens and distressing the regime, but thus far the Iranian leadership has not deviated from its path to nuclear weapons. During this coming year, the Iranians will have to decide whether to continue to move toward the bomb, to try to forge ahead and determine facts on the ground or to arrive at some sort of compromise with the the powers that will allow only partial enrichment of uranium.”

Reasons for hysteria

In the meantime, thus far, the Iranian opposition, which was brutally crushed by authorities during the failed “Green Revolution” that followed the last presidential elections in June 2009, has not been rehabilitated. At that time, many opponents to the regime were thrown in prison, tortured, and some of them were even murdered. Despite the increasing anger at the regime over the worsening economic situation, the organized political movements are not coming out of hiding and they have not yet broken through the barrier of fear.

However, a number of measures taken by Khamenei and his people – measures bordering on panic – testify to the regime’s concern. Recently one of Ahmadinejad’s media advisors, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was imprisoned for six months because he dared to express criticism of Khamenei. The director of the Reuters bureau in Iran, Parisa Hafezi, was convicted by a court of spreading lies and propaganda. In recent months, dozens of people accused of acting against the government in Iran and trying to organize a revolt have been thrown in prison. Mehdi and Faiza Rafsanjani, the son and daughter of one of Iran’s most prominent leaders in recent decades, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been arrested and jailed for similar suspicions. There are apparently good reasons for the regime’s hysteria.

The combination of the difficult economic situation, the insistence on continuing the nuclear project, the tremendous investments in Syria and Hezbollah at a time when the unemployment rate and poverty in Iran are continuing to increase – all these are interconnected and are creating fertile ground for a new protest movement, perhaps even more massive than its predecessor four years ago.

During the past two years, the Iranians have seen quite a number of examples in the Arab world of how large masses of people can bring about change. Preserving the Syrian regime is important to the ayatollahs not only because of their need to strengthen the axis against the West and Israel. The deposing of Assad will also be a message to the Iranian public that in their country, too, change is still possible, despite the difficulties and the aggressive repression on the part of the regime.

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