Which tyrant will fall next?

The Year of Revolution: As the leaders of Syria and Bahrain cling to power, Patrick Cockburn explains how they have managed to resist the protesters – and wonders whether they can survive another 12 months

In three of the Arab countries east of Egypt – Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – protesters have challenged their governments over the past year but failed to overthrow them. The reasons for those failures are very different though they have important points in common. In each of these states protesters were frustrated because a significant part of the population had a lot to lose if the ruling elite were reformed or overthrown.

In Syria and Bahrain religious identity helps explain loyalty to the powers-that-be. Protesters in Bahrain might insist that their programme was secular and democratic, but everybody knew that a fair poll would affect revolutionary change by putting the majority Shia in power instead of the minority Sunni. In Syria, similarly, democracy means that the Sunni, three quarters of the population, would effectively replace the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, as rulers of the state.

This does not mean that the demonstrators in both countries had a secret sectarian agenda. It was simply that political divisions already ran along sectarian lines. In Bahrain the security forces were almost entirely Sunni. As the year went on sectarian hatreds became starker.

At the height of the repression, the government demolished Shia mosques claiming it had suddenly discovered they did not have planning permission. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the sectarian homogeneity of the ruling elite in Syria and Bahrain made it impossible for senior state officials to dump an unpopular regime in order to maintain their own power and privileges. In Syria the Alawites came to believe that if President Bashar al-Assad lost so would they.

The Shia and Sunni split has other serious implications. The struggle between these two Islamic traditions, so similar to the battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, has been escalating since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq in 2006-7 deepened the hatred between the two sects. Of course it was always much in the interests of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria and the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain to play the sectarian card and demand communal solidarity from their co-religionists. As far back as 1991 I remember Saddam Hussein bringing the mutilated bodies of Baathist officials back from Najaf, where they had been lynched by Shia insurgents, and the terror expressed by Sunni friends in Baghdad, previously opposed to the regime, that the same fate awaited them if Saddam was toppled.

The Sunni-Shia rivalry goes some way to explaining why the Arab Spring won successes in North Africa that it has not achieved east of Egypt. Each side has been led by religiously inspired states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have struggled for supremacy in the region for 30 years. Embattled regimes and their insurgent enemies automatically gain allies. The Assad government might be isolated, but not quite to degree that Muammar Gaddafi was before his fall. Iran will do almost anything to keep its most crucial ally in the Arab world in power. By the same token Iran's many enemies, unable to overthrow the government in Tehran, are determined to weaken it by changing the regime in Damascus.

Regional rivalries, deepening Sunni-Shia divisions and the democratic protest movement, commonly called the Arab Spring, combine to produce the ingredients for a long-running crisis. "2012 will be one of the most unstable years ever in the Middle East," predicted a minister in one of the Gulf countries. In almost every Arab state he foresaw violence increasing as no decisive winners emerge. Syria and Yemen are on the verge of civil war, Bahrain remains divided while the turmoil affects other states in the region. For instance, one reason why the Islamist Shia government of Iraq has struck at Iraqi Sunni leaders in the past few weeks is the fear in Baghdad that it may soon be facing a hostile Sunni regime in power in Damascus. The Shia political elite want to strengthen their grip on power now.

Look at the situation in Yemen 10 months later. The protesters are still camped out in the capital Sanaa and many have been killed or wounded by government forces. President Saleh may go to the US for further medical treatment for injuries he received from a bomb that almost killed him in June. But the surprise at that time was that his departure to hospital in Saudi Arabia did not mean triumph for the uprising because his son Ahmed Saleh, commander of the Republican Guard, took over. The street protesters have been pushed to one side by such dubious members of Yemen's ruling establishment as General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armoured Division and Hamid al-Ahmar (no relation), a billionaire entrepreneur and tribal leader. Troops and fighters loyal to both men have been protecting protesters. These divisions at the top are not new. When General al-Ahmar was fighting Shia rebels known as Houthi in northern Yemen in 2009 his own government, according to a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks, tried to kill him by asking Saudi planes operating against the rebels to bomb a building which turned out to be the general's own headquarters.

In Syria, and to a lesser extent, in Bahrain there is a danger that a frustrated opposition will progressively turn to violence. In Bahrain, the Shia see themselves as not only being politically disenfranchised, but becoming the victims of social and economic apartheid. Opposition leaders say it would not be surprising if some militants turn to violence against the monarchy.

In Syria, the opposition clearly does not have an effective strategy for getting rid of Bashar al-Assad and the Baathist government. It can keep up demonstrations and propaganda, but those familiar with the inner core of the regime in Damascus, say they are confident they can hold out. The opposition is fragmented and divided between those inside and outside the country. There is no provisional government in waiting as there purported to be – and to some extent was – in Libya. The core of the Syrian security forces remains united. Sanctions are squeezing the government but, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s, these hurt the people – and cause popular resentment – before they damage the government. Neighbouring governments repeat the mantra "Assad is bound to fall", but are not sure how or when.

"Nobody knows what to do about Syria," said one Middle East leader. The opposition calls vainly for foreign military intervention as in Libya, but this is not likely to happen. Extreme Sunni militants previously active in Iraq may see their chance and, in the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the first big suicide bombs have exploded in Damascus this month.

The bright hopes of the Arab Spring are vanishing and peaceful protests may have had their day across the region as civil confrontation threatens to turn into civil war.

Syria releases 755 prisoners as monitors continue tour

Syria released 755 political prisoners yesterday in a rare concession to critics of the government's brutal crackdown against the nine-month uprising in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed and unknown numbers arrested.

The move came as an Arab League team began the second day of a monitoring mission to gauge whether Syria is complying with a peace plan which it signed. The monitors' assessment on Tuesday that conditions in the flashpoint city of Homs were "reassuring" reinforced opposition fears that the team will be loathe to criticise the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed 15 people across the country on Tuesday, six of them in Homs. Opposition sources said prisoners had been moved and tanks concealed inside government buildings to give the appearance of normality.

"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening. The situation seemed reassuring so far," Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the monitoring team, said yesterday. "[Tuesday] was quiet and there were no clashes... But remember this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time."

But Human Rights Watch suggested that the monitors had failed to spot the relocation of prisoners. The group said it had been told by Syrian officials that 400 to 600 prisoners had been moved from a holding facility inside Homs to a military missile factory outside the city.

Matthew Kalman

Tomorrow: The role of women in the Arab uprisings, and the changes the revolutions may bring

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