It’s been three years since that young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire and started the Arab Spring. Bouazizi’s tragic self-immolation on December 17, 2010, served as the signal for the outbreak of massive upheaval against the dictatorial regimes ruling the Middle East, the repercussions of which we are still seeing and feeling today.
Revolution after revolution, civil war after civil war, and the end is nowhere in sight. Stability is still elusive, but we shouldn’t ignore what seem to be the first signs of calm.
Just last week, Tunisians reported that the Ennahda party, which identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and has led the country since elections in 2011, had agreed to the appointment of an alternative, independent government. The desire to stabilize the country and the growing wave of protests caused party officials, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, to fear a second, Egypt-style revolution.
This marks the first time since the Arab Spring erupted that an Islamist movement has freely given up at least a portion of its rule. (Ennahda officials demand that they continue to draft the constitution and election law, and that there be democratic elections next year.) There is just one thing that hasn’t been agreed upon with the secular opposition: Who will actually head the government?
For now, Tunisia is an exception. In Egypt, calm has yet to take hold between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the military-backed government. This week, the attorney-general announced that former president Mohammed Morsi would be tried for espionage, including counts of passing information to an enemy country.
In Libya, it is difficult to point to a clear political entity. In Yemen, al-Qaeda is perpetrating attacks almost daily. And in Syria, the bloody civil war drags on.
Although the Geneva II summit — an international attempt to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria — is scheduled to take place next month, Bashar Assad’s army continues to slaughter civilians using an “all you can kill” strategy. This week, that strategy saw explosives tossed from the air onto rebel-held neighborhoods, with more than 100 people killed in three days. The problem the international community faces is that the alternative to Assad isn’t much better: a rabble of armed extremist groups, the most dominant of which identify with al-Qaeda.
On Wednesday morning, Reuters reported that George Sabra, the head of the Syrian National Coalition — the main opposition party outside of Syria — had received an explicit message from the West, saying that in the transitional period between Geneva II and presidential elections (if such a miracle were to happen), Assad would remain in power.
According to a Syrian opposition figure considered close to the Saudis (who have been bitterly critical of America lately), British and US representatives have told “moderate” opposition leaders they fear that Assad’s ouster would lead to al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups taking over the country.
The concern is not completely disconnected from reality. In recent weeks, factions identified with the global terror organization managed to take control of crossings on the Turkish border, and of weapons shipments sent by the international community to the Free Syrian Army, which is considered relatively moderate.
According to this same opposition member, who participated in a high-level meeting last week in London, neither the Americans nor the British intend to stop Assad from running for another term. “Apparently the fact that he bombarded his people with poison gas has been forgotten,” he said.
The American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who handles contact with the opposition, denied this. According to Ford, the US made clear long ago that Assad has lost all legitimacy, and that he has no place in the transitional period.
But another element has entered the picture which Ford and his staff have likely not taken into consideration: it’s that after innumerable zig-zags on Syria by the Americans, it is hard to find Arab states or officials who believe the US administration.
The kid-glove treatment of Assad by the West is not only a consequence of the extremism among opposition forces, but also of the opposition’s weakness and fragmentation, as opposed to the surprising resilience that the Syrian president has shown — with the help of his friends Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraq, of course.
The Syrian army is enjoying battlefield success, while the opposition continues its infighting. Many Syrian civilians fear that Assad’s ouster would lead to general chaos on the streets, and the slaughter of religious minorities.
The “Ehud Barak assessment,” which argued more than a year and a half ago that Assad would last only a few more weeks, has long since been replaced by the realization that the president will hold onto power for the foreseeable future.
Professor Eyal Zisser, dean of the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Syria, said that the West had changed its approach. The worst problem in Syria today, as the West sees it, is not Assad but the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists. Zisser said that many sources both in and out of Syria understand that Assad cannot be forced out, and that what is desirable is a political process which ultimately leads to an Assad-free solution.
“The hope in the international community is to not see Assad in the future, but he is there right now. They hope that through the political process, the regime will agree to hand over power quietly,” he said.
According to Zisser, the secular opposition’s stance has changed significantly, as well: “Initially they did not agree to summit talks with Assad. Now they agree. Currently, they do not agree to an intermediate period in which Assad retains power. But this too could change.”
Hezbollah, which is paying a high price every day to keep Assad in power, should have been able to breathe a sigh of relief from the strengthening of his regime in Syria and the growing acceptance abroad of his survival. But the Shiite terrorist organization has suffered one too many blows recently, in both the political and military spheres in Lebanon.
“When you get caught up in a civil war,” said Zisser, “you get caught up in a civil war.” In other words, Hezbollah can blame only itself for its predicament.
Hezbollah’s decision to send troops to Syria triggered a wave of attacks on Lebanese soil against Shiite targets, primarily in Hezbollah strongholds. This week, it was a car packed with explosives that detonated next to the Hezbollah facility in the Baalbek region, leaving several casualties (the exact number isn’t clear). The organization is now busy protecting its forces in the border region with Syria, as well as in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut.
According to reports in the Arabic press, Hezbollah has isolated entire areas in an attempt to prevent further suicide attacks and bombings. The mysterious assassination earlier this month of Hassan al-Laqis, the commander of the organization’s military wing, the falling of rockets on Hezbollah strongholds, and the bitter criticism of the group in Lebanon should be added to the long list of setbacks it has suffered.
None of this means that Hezbollah will give up its weapons anytime soon, or that groups in Lebanon will unite effectively against it. Post-Arab Spring stability won’t be coming to Syria or Lebanon anytime soon.
But at least as far as Israel’s concerned, it does mean that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s terror organization, in all likelihood, will continue to focus primarily on internal Lebanese and Syrian matters rather than on its southern neighbor.