By Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad
With Muammar Qaddafi's flight from power in Libya fueling speculation that Syria's president might be next, Iran and Russia are sweating, and regional commentators are, sometimes gleefully, taking note.
"The Khomeinist leadership is in a state of panic," crowed Amir Taheri, a long-time critic of the Islamic Republic, in the Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat. Eight months after the start of the Arab Spring, he added, "the ruling mullahs" fear that they, too, "may be on the path of the tsunami of change."
Taheri, of course, omitted any discussion of whether the monarchy and mullahs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf might not also be feeling some of the heat.
Less triumphantly, columnist Sateh Noureddine wrote in the Beirut-based leftist daily As-Safir that, "Iran is no longer able to tolerate" the events in Syria. "It is now voicing its objection or at least its reservations concerning the behaviour of President Bashar al-Assad, who is presenting pieces of evidence every day on how good he is at losing allies and friends and gaining enemies and adversaries."
Noureddine was referring to a recent statement by Iran's Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who, instead of focusing only on "a foreign conspiracy" driving the unrest, said "either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands, and governments should answer them as soon as possible."
Salehi also reiterated an Iranian warning that "if a vacuum is created in the Syrian ruling system, it will have unprecedented repercussions."
Taken together, Noureddine said, this "not only implies that the Syrian crisis has reached the phase of extreme danger, but it also indicates that Tehran has announced a state of complete alert on the political and perhaps also the military levels in order to deal with the upcoming Syrian surprises."
Although Tehran has not yet reached a "phase of despair" over Assad, the signs that it is now sending in an open and public manner are "quite astonishing," Noureddine said.
Still, he predicted, Iran "will not abandon this regime, and it will keep on fighting by its side until the last moment, all the while realizing that no one has ever come back from a suicide mission."
Acknowledging that there may indeed be some level of foreign conspiracy driving the unrest in Syria, Abdel-Beri Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, pointed out that Iran itself witnessed massive popular protests following the disputed presidential election in June 2009 -- protests that, he said, "were backed by foreign conspiracies and an enormous media machine."
But even in this case, the death toll was relatively limited, Atwan wrote: "In Dar'a alone," the southern Syrian city where the protests began in March, "more than 100 people were killed or wounded in the early days of the protests, let alone dozens of others who were killed as they took part in their funerals. The Syrian authorities themselves did not then say that there were gunmen or intruders in the protests."
With this in mind, Atwan called the Iranian foreign minister's statement "a message of great significance." It established a clear link between the use of still more violence against the Syrian people's "legitimate demands" and the increasing likelihood of foreign intervention, which could drag Iran into the situation.
This duel warning -- to Syria and to NATO -- is "correct" he said. "Syria is unlike Libya, and the Syrian regime is not isolated in the region; it is part of a bloc that includes Iran, which is a major regional power, and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which includes ardent fighters, and which has a huge arsenal of modern weapons."
Assad himself also has a formidable army that has not substantially cracked -- all of which makes a recent mediation effort by the Arab League even more critical, Atwan argued. "The Arab initiative may offer a lifeline," Atwan wrote, and Syria should not close the door to it.
"We hope to see Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabia and his accompanying delegation in Syria very soon," he said, "because Syria does not need to create enemies, but to stop the bloodshed as a prelude to a true and serious democratic change, which must start immediately without any delay."
Is not the "Arabization" of the crisis better than its internationalization, Atwan asked in closing?
In addition to conducting a vigorous debate over Iran's role in the Syrian unrest, analysts and pundits are increasingly criticizing Russia's part in the successive crises in the Middle East.
Unlike Iran, however, which can take comfort in strong pockets of support from the Arab media, Russia -- especially its "hawkish" Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- seems to have fewer and fewer admirers outside Syria's state-controlled press.
When the Russian envoy Alexander Bogdanov visited Damascus this week for an urgent consultation with Assad, Hassan Haidar wrote approvingly in his column in Al-Hayat that Russia is now apparently very nervous over its position in Syria.
The Russian message, he said, did not mark a change or a softening in Moscow's "quasi-absolute" support for Assad, as the Iranian message was generally perceived. However, Hassan wrote:
In addition to it being an attempt to eliminate the weak points affecting its defense of the Syrian president -- especially in international forums -- and lift the embarrassment whenever it refuses to condemn the killings and arrests he is undertaking, it relays Russia's increasing concerns over the excessive use of the armed forces, recognizing that the continuation of the Russians' presence and influence in the country are linked to these forces' unity, stability and armament.
George Semaan another columnist in Al-Hayat, said that even if Assad manages to stay in power, Russia is in serious danger of "losing" the Middle East.
"It seems clear," Semaan wrote, "that Moscow did not absorb the shock which affected it" as a result of the Arab Uprisings. He said Russia has tried and is still trying to rebuild its footprint, "especially in the Middle East, after it lost most of Europe." And now it is acting "as though the Middle East were the only arena left for it to compete and engage in trade-offs with Europe and America."
In a column headlined "Russia and Syria, and the Eyes of the Dog," Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid was even less restrained. Russia, he said "views the region through the eyes of a jackal, the carnivorous animal that lives on dead bodies and the remnants of the prey of other animals."
Had Russia's stance towards the events in Libya and Syria "been positive from the beginning," al-Rashid wrote, "perhaps it would have spared the two regimes with the least amount of confrontations by pushing them towards reform, since this would have been better for them than a complete uprooting."
But Russia is well known for positions that "nearly always" support "evil regimes," he said.
With Iran and Russia the focus of so much consternation, the Obama administration, it seems, could at least take comfort that its "leading from behind" approach might be saving it from the regional commentators' usual wrath -- at least for now.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
To contact the writers of this article: email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at firstname.lastname@example.org- Sep/06/2011 13:22 GMT