Review of the Middle East in 2012: The uproar after the uprising

'Syria is the bloody, unfinished chapter of the Arab Spring'

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The Independent Online

After the fall of dictators and the promise of freedom and justice that brought, the past 12 months were a time of division and doubt in the Middle East and North Africa.

There were celebrations for those, mainly Islamists, with newly gained access to power, but protests from others who feared a new form of tyranny, this time theocratic, was being imposed. The ballot boxes appeared, in many places for the first time in decades, but the guns had not been put away, and rivals, formerly united in the uprisings, were now in confrontation, determined to defend their respective versions of the true values of the Arab Spring.

Other problems which had been overshadowed by the uprisings also resurfaced. Iran and the West and its allies continue to be locked in acrimony, with repeated claims from Israel that it was prepared to bomb Tehran's nuclear programme. The Netanyahu government did carry out its threat to strike at another enemy, Hamas in Gaza. Unlike the attack of three years ago, this time there was no ground invasion; a ceasefire was signed, but neither side bothered to pretend that long-term peace had broken out. There were outbreaks of fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurdish separatist PKK, with some of the highest casualty figures for a long time, adding another combustible dynamic to the volatile region.

But it was Syria, the latest and unfinished chapter of the Arab Spring, which was the enduring crisis of the year, its civil war plumbing new depths of viciousness and, increasingly, drawing in other countries in the region. The level of strife had risen with each successive rebellion. At the beginning, Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman, fled after just a few days of rioting. In Egypt, Mubarak fell after a few weeks of demonstrations, albeit with increasing loss of lives, and the same was the case with Saleh in Yemen. In Libya, we saw a full-blown armed conflict which lasted for nine months, despite Nato's intervention decisively swinging the campaign against Gaddafi.

Syria has been by far the bloodiest struggle so far, made especially bitter due to its sectarian nature, with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels pitted against the Alawites, a Shia offshoot, from whom the country's ruling elite are drawn. This has led to Shia support from Iran and the Hezbollah in the Lebanon, to the Assad regime, while the opposition gets its backing from Sunni Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Libya and co-religionists in Lebanon. Turkey, predominantly Sunni with a sizeable Alavi minority (who have links with the Syrian Alawites) is currently hosting more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has been a proponent of setting up safe havens across the border.

Following incidents of missiles from Syria hitting villages in Turkey, the government in Ankara secured an agreement to station Nato Patriot missile systems at the border. Western governments insisted that this was purely a defensive measure, but the Russians, who had been backing Assad, said that the US and its allies were preparing to intervene. Moscow's scepticism about the West's stance was not entirely fanciful. Money from the US, France and the UK has been making its way to the opposition, and plans are being drawn up to train rebel fighters.

The Russians, as well as the Chinese, remained adamant they would not back a UN resolution authorising a 'no-fly' zone in Syria. Agreeing to that in the case of Libya gave the green light to the West's bombing campaign. However, recently the Kremlin appeared to be distancing itself from Assad while warning repeatedly about the chaos which may follow the collapse of the regime.

The US, too, is concerned about the increasing influence to jihadist groups in the Syrian opposition and only too aware of what went wrong in Libya – the US ambassador to Tripoli, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were murdered in Benghazi by an Islamist group linked to al-Qa'ida.

Yet Libya is, in fact, one of the success stories of the Arab Spring, from the moderate and progressive point of view. The Islamist parties did poorly in the election despite campaigns bankrolled by sponsors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the weeks after the killings, while crowds were attacking Western embassies in many Muslim countries in reaction to a film about the Prophet Mohammed, people in Benghazi were out in the streets – to drive out hardline groups.

However, political Islam continued its drive to rule in other parts of the region. Hamas is in the ascendancy, after managing to hit Tel Aviv and a suburb of Jerusalem with rockets. Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take advantage of his rise in profile and popularity after brokering the deal between Israel and Hamas to try and carry out a constitutional coup. He failed, but then arranged a referendum to introduce Islamist governance. In Tunisia, where it all started, the Ennahda party in power, failing to deliver the economic dividend which democracy was supposed to bring, is now adopting the tones of the more extremist Salafists.

Their opponents in the region, the more secular activists, have vowed to stop them. Battle lines are being drawn up. The genie of discontent released by the Arab Spring will not be easily put back in the bottle.

@DAlexanderMP Impressive scenes in #TahrirSq as thousands of Egyptians mark anniversary of uprising & honour those who died struggling for democracy

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary

@piersmorgan Are Syrians less important than Libyans? Because that's what the world's leaders seem to be saying through their inaction. Shames us all

Piers Morgan, journalist

@emile_hokayem People calling for diplomacy w Assad now must have been fast asleep in recent years. He gave nothing when he was strong+could, so why now?

Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst, International Institute for Strategic Studies

@ns_mehdihasan Benjamin Zephania makes important point that it is west encircling Iran, not vice versa. Simple point. Lost in all fearmongering rhetoric

Mehdi Hasan, journalist

@emmasuleiman Assad thugs in my neighborhood told the neighbors that Hama 82 was nothing compared to what they ll do them this time! #Damascus #Syria

Emma Suleiman, Syrian photographer and filmmaker

@ShappiKhorsandi Impossible to keep up with #Gaza news without wanting to scream. Impossible to tweet anything about it without being screamed AT.

Shappi Khorsandi, comedian