Patrick Cockburn: Compared to Syria, the fall of Libya was a piece of cake

World View: Gaddafi's removal affected only one country. If the Assad regime is ousted, the reverberations will be felt across the Middle East for decades to come

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President Bashar al-Assad's enemies are closing in for the kill. The Arab League is suspending Syria, and Turkey, once a close ally, is leading the pack in seeking to displace the government that has ruled for 40 years. Arab leaders are talking to West European states about deploying the same mix of political, military and economic sanctions against Syria that was used in Libya.

This final assault is already producing convulsions across the Middle East and beyond, because the outcome of the struggle will have an explosive impact on the entire region. By comparison, the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was a marginal event. Complex though these developments are, the media's coverage has been misleadingly simple-minded and one-dimensional, giving the impression that all we are witnessing is a heroic uprising by the Syrian masses against a brutal Baathist police state.

This is certainly one aspect of the crisis. Brutal repression is continuous. Death squads roam the streets. Foreign journalists, banned from Syria and reliant on information from the opposition, report this. But manipulation of the media by the opposition is also made easy by the lack of information from the country. Opposition claims, such as one last week that an air force intelligence centre near Damascus had been stormed, are credulously accepted and published, although other accounts suggest that all that happened was that the building was hit by rocket-propelled grenades that scorched its paintwork.

The line-up of the Syrian government's opponents should make it clear to anybody that there is more at stake here than Arab and international concern for human rights. The lead is being taken by Saudi Arabia – its repressive regime one of the few absolute monarchies left on the planet. In March, it sent 1,500 troops into Bahrain to crush protests very similar to those in Syria. Unstinting support was given by the Saudis to the Bahraini authorities as they tortured distinguished hospital consultants whose only crime was to treat injured protesters. Is it really conceivable that Saudi Arabia should be primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns?

A more convincing motive for international involvement is the decades-old but escalating struggle against Iran by the US, its Nato allies, Israel and the Sunni states of the Middle East. But the last few years have shown the limits of effective action against Iran, short of war, which, for all the bluster from Washington and Tel Aviv, they are wary of fighting. But Syria is a different matter. "If you can't beat Iran, the second best option is to break Syria," says the Iraqi political scientist Ghassan Attiyah, who points out the absurdity of Saudi Arabia presenting itself as a defender of human and democratic rights in the Middle East.

The US has been carefully keeping in the background, although one senior Arab official says that Damascus had sent emissaries to talk to the Americans to see if Washington would ease up on the campaign against it. The US price was that Syria must break with Iran, but the Syrians were dubious about what exactly they would get in return for giving up their sole ally. "We are being asked to jump into a swimming pool with no water in it," they said.

The struggle for Syria is the latest arena for the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. Its modern origins lie in the Iranian revolution of 1979, deepened during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, and reached new depths of hatred in Iraq during the Shia-Sunni civil war in 2005-07.

In 2005, Iraq became the first Arab state since the Fatimids in Egypt in the 12th century to have a predominantly Shia government. In Lebanon, the Shia political-military Hezbollah movement became the leading political player and withstood an Israeli military assault in 2006. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Hazara, a Shia ethnic group which was once oppressed as virtual serfs, grew in political and economic strength.

The Arab Spring at first seemed to work in favour of the Shia and Iran by deposing some of their most notable opponents, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The 70 per cent Shia majority in Bahrain demanded democratic rights in February and March, only to be brutally repressed. Those tortured say their torturers continually demanded they confess to links to Iran. Underlining the sectarian nature of the repression, the Bahraini authorities demolished Shia mosques and desecrated the graves of Shia holy men.

The gathering alliance against the Assad government is both anti-Iranian and anti-Shia. It is based on the correct assumption that the fall of the present regime will be a blow to both. The Alawites, the heteredox Shia sect to which 12 per cent of Syrians belong, dominate the ruling elite. A senior Middle East diplomat says: "The Alawites have decided they must do or die with Assad." The Christians and Druze likewise do not expect much mercy from a triumphant Sunni regime, while Hezbollah will be weakened in Lebanon and Syria's 30-year alliance with Iran will end. Not surprisingly, the Iranians see the assault on Syria primarily as an anti-Shia and anti-Iranian counter-revolution wearing a human rights mask.

How will Iran and Iraq, the two most important Shia states, respond to the growing likelihood of the fall of the government in Damascus? The Iranians will do all they can to prop it up, but already suspect this may not be enough. Consequently, they will respond to the loss of their Syrian ally by increasing their influence in Iraq. "They will do everything to hold Iraq as their last line of defence," Dr Attiyah says, "but the country will become a battleground."

Baghdad has its own reasons for fearing the outcome of the crisis in Syria. The Sunni minority in Iraq, politically marginalised by the Shia and Kurds, will be strengthened if a Sunni regime takes over next door in Damascus. The withdrawal of the last US troops at the end of the year means that Washington has less reason to defend the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader should be under no illusion about the hostility of his Sunni neighbours.

The fall of the government in Syria will not be confined to one country, as happened in Libya. It will throw the whole Middle East into turmoil. Turkish leaders say privately they have been given a free hand by the US and Britain to do what they want. But the Saudis have no wish to see Turkey become the champions of the Muslim world. The battle for Syria is already producing fresh rivalries and the seeds of future conflicts.

Crackdown continues near Turkish border

Syrian troops yesterday stormed a central town and a north-western region in search of opponents of the government as pressure on Damascus intensified to end an eight-month crisis that has left thousands of people dead.

The attacks on the town of Shezar near the Turkish bordercame a day after Syria agreed in principle to allow Arab observers into the country to oversee a peace plan proposed by the 22-member Arab League. Syria wants changes to the league's observer mission to preserve its "sovereignty".

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