Much anxiety accompanies the first anniversary of the eruption of the Arab uprisings -- and much wavering between disappointment and hope. There is confusion, uncertainty and vacillation between optimism and pessimism. And there is hope that this Arab autumn will be a fleeting one, yet there is alarm regarding a possibly worse winter which could carry with it causes for regret and amazement.
Theories are floundering, and so are predictions. Some say that it is only natural for the Arab region to go through a difficult transitional phase, because it has truly experienced a serious shock that has shaken the foundations of regimes that had been in control for forty years. Those say that the Islamists newly in power are only there transitionally, because they will fail the test of governance. They say that the mere fact of democracy having finally arrived to the Arab region is something that must be welcomed, because this democracy is permanent, while everything else is transitory.
Those of the opposite opinion point to the fact that the Islamists have hijacked the youths' revolution, just as the mullahs of Iran did more than thirty years ago -- and they are still in power, ruling through a religious autocracy. They say that to call for waiting for the Arab Islamists in power to fail represents suicide for secularists, moderates and modernists. They do not trust the theory of this "failure" promoted by the West on the basis that the Islamists will not be able to take care of a people suffering from hunger and unemployment, because the relationship between Islamist political parties and their religious popular base is an old one, and one to which traditional economic standards will not necessarily apply. That is first.
Second, the West's wager on the Islamists in power inevitably having to rely on American-European financial aid in order to save the economy -- thus buying their loyalty or forcing them into it -- is a dangerous one. It is a wager that could well be lost, because it assumes a certain naivety and flexibility among groups the West knows nothing about.
Moreover, it is a wager which is in any case not in the interests of the modernists, who have been abandoned by Washington -- which is well known for abandoning anyone for the sake of narrow and short-term interests. More important than all the commemorations of this revolution or that awakening, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, is the reflection of the shock in the repercussions of these uprisings on the issue of Syria.
The latter has truly proven that it was different. Yet one of the reasons for this is due to fear of a fate similar to what has occurred in the places where change has taken place, as well as fear of a future of division and fragmentation. But in spite of this, putting the final nail in the coffin of the regime in Damascus is the regime itself, as the common denominator between the optimists and the pessimists is their absolute rejection of a regime that violently assaults its own people in cities and villages, insisting on a security solution and relying on support from Iran, Russia and China -- with differences in terms of its nature, depth and bloodiness.
Even more saddening is the conflict among major players over the Syrian arena, where the grass they tread on is the people. Russia is of course reviewing its priorities, and so must the United States review its policies. The Obama administration should either take it upon itself to settle the Syrian issue, with the Iranian and Israeli dimensions it involves, perhaps being forced to play a military role; or decide that the time really has come to seriously engage Vladimir Putin's government, so that it may know what the features of the bargain required are, and make its decision about them, at the very least out of mercy for the Syrian people.
This year seems devoid of the emotions felt last year, which had mostly been characterized, especially at certain stages, by the euphoria of the change coming at the hands of young men and women in the public squares and streets. It is the year of bloodshed, confrontations and fears of regional wars. The Islamic Republic of Iran is gradually returning to the forefront of international interest, having recently drifted away from it. Tehran's rulers were never absent from the events in the Arab region. They wagered on these events in Egypt, then wagered against them in Syria. In Cairo, they wanted the regime to fall; in Syria, they wanted it to survive, and thus provided it with funds, equipment, men and weapons.
Before the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, there were the revolutions of "the People Want" in Iran in 2009 and in Lebanon in 2005. In Tehran, the revolution was contained, and in Lebanon it was reversed after it toppled a government and succeeded in pushing Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon.
Syria is a stronghold of the utmost importance for Iran's hegemony on Arab decision-making. There in Syria, Iran's strategy could be obliterated, and the people's victory could provide the Iranian people with the momentum to restore their resolve to overthrow the regime. There in Syria, if the Baathist regime were to fall, so would the link between Iran's rulers and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is why Tehran is worried, and this is why Iran's leadership is playing astonishingly inconsistent hands.
Indeed, there are indications that Iran is supporting extremist Sunni Salafist movements and political parties. And there are those who have come to realize that the issue is not as clear as one of Sunni and Shiite affiliations, but is rather extremely obscure in terms of hiding new, strange and dangerous alliances.
The movements and political parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region have become in the minds of some in Iran near-allies of the United States, Europe and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is why it seems logical to them to provide support to Salafist movements and parties, so that they may defend against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and against the solidarity of its branches in toppling Arab regimes, including the regime in Damascus. Iraq alone is insufficient for Iran within the framework of the new regional order. It is of great value, but Syria is vital to the strategy of Tehran's mullahs.
This is why, after Russia has entered as a direct actor, and one that is clear in its choice to stand alongside the rulers of Damascus and Tehran, those rulers have become more confident, they have come to feel that the rules of the game have changed completely, and that the roles they would be playing in the new regional order now have dimensions and repercussions of a different kind. Breaking their siege has become a possibility in the minds of the leaderships in Tehran and in Damascus.
The big question on everyone's mind is: does Tehran want a regional war that would reshuffle all cards? Does Damascus consider its salvation or its doom to lie in a regional war? And does Israel consider the current situation to represent an opportunity to save itself from what it claims to be an existential threat -- i.e. Iran acquiring nuclear weapons? There is a theory that Israel will direct a military strike against nuclear reactors in Iran before the start of the electoral race between candidates to the American presidency. Those who are of this opinion say that Israel is convinced that Barack Obama remaining in the White House would take away from it for the next four years any possibility of settling the matter of Iran obtaining military nuclear capabilities. Thus Israel's rulers consider their only window for military action against Iran's nuclear reactors to be from today to the end of the year.
The alternative theory points to the fact that besieging Iran by imposing sanctions that will increasingly broaden will break the back of the rulers of the Islamic Republic, and that there is no need for a military adventure that would provide these rulers with the loyalty of the Iranian people and the sympathy of the Muslim World.
Moreover, the fall of the regime in Damascus, which is loyal to the regime in Tehran, will increase the weakening of Iran's mullahs and will lead them to think carefully before using Hezbollah's card in Lebanon in a military adventure against Israel. There is therefore no need for Israel to provide a winning card to Damascus and Tehran, which will certainly be used at its expense. Moreover, Israel and Iran have historically only ever entered into wars by proxy and verbal wars. Their relationship has always been one of truce, so there is no need to fear a war between the two. Rather, what is feared is the eruption of regional wars through Arab arenas. Here, Lebanon remains a prime candidate, and yet Syria remains the arena of the larger battle, not just between regional players, but also between international ones.
Russia today represents the most important link for the fate of Syria and the fate of the Arab revolutions. Of course, it bears great responsibility regarding Syria's fate, but it is not alone to be held responsible. Indeed, Western countries, and most prominently the United States, Britain and France, seem content with blaming Russia, because this spares them all responsibility. They are also satisfied to stand behind Arab countries, especially those of the Gulf, in a manner of hiding so as to avoid the requirements of leadership. Arab countries in turn seem scattered, unsure whether to move forward or retreat. At times they sound the drums of resolve, and at others they move erratically and arbitrarily without a strategy of execution, thus being as harmful, as they are useful in their stances towards the Syrian people and towards Arab peoples.
Arab people in turn flounder between what seems like their yearning for freedom and democracy in an awakening and a cry against dictatorship on the one hand, and what they are doing through the ballot boxes on the other -- clearly choosing rulers that would issue dictates and rob them of the right to choose and of pluralism, equality and freedom.
As for the United Nations, it is like a test tube. At times it seems aware of what the process of change in the Arab region means, and at others it find itself engulfed in the events themselves without thinking of what they mean. These are exciting times to a certain extent, but they are also times of sadness when one delves deep in the events. One hopes that change in the Arab region will be a forward-moving process, one that is thoughtful and permanently orientated towards modernity, liberalism and democracy. If, on the other hand, change were to fall hostage to a new form of despotism, then those who called for submitting to what the ballot boxes have brought will be biting their fingers in regret. And it will have been too late.
Indeed, reaching power through the voting process is easy, but it will be impossible to remove despotism from power once democracy and its mechanisms, including ballot boxes, have been eliminated.