We are held in thrall to the Middle East, unable to escape, even as the holiday season draws nigh. The main actors at the moment are Syria, Egypt and Iran. Palestine and Israel are on the sidelines for the moment, but not for long. The Holy Land remains an unholy mess. Events continue to spiral out of control in Syria, where a dying regime is now using inaccurate Scud rockets, capable of carrying chemical weapons, against the rebels, who in turn have laid siege to Damascus.
In Egypt, the streets are returning to normal after days of rioting by pro- and anti- government factions. Opposition forces have agreed to accept a referendum on the new, highly controversial constitution, so for the moment, President Mohammed Morsi is safe. Significantly, the Egyptian military adroitly showed its political skill and central role in Egyptian public affairs by protecting the presidential palace but refusing to protect the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And in Iran, a government of mullahs and ayatollahs broods silently and malevolently as it watches its Syrian ally twist slowly in the wind, its death throes all too apparent.
It’s difficult to be precise about Syria as news coverage is so limited. What we know, or think we know, comes mostly from rebel sources and the few daring western journalists who journey to the battlefields from safe havens in Lebanon and Turkey. Even “battlefields” may be an unsure term as so much of the fighting seems to be in large urban areas like Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, or in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and in the ruined streets of shattered Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.
One by one, however, the encampments and airfields of the Syrian army, one of the biggest and best equipped in the Middle East, have fallen to rebel forces along with vast stores of weapons. No wonder the Russians now despair for the regime’s survival, as Moscow is Syria’s biggest supplier of arms, and tens of thousands of Russians live scattered across Syria. Those Russians may soon be rounded up and sent home. Without the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Russia loses much of its diplomatic clout in the Middle East. Nor does China much relish the collapse of the regime into the arms of rebels supplied by other Arab governments and ultimately the West. This is outside interference, much abhorred by Chinese governments not so long removed from their own revolutionary past and memories of western interference.
Regardless of Russian and Chinese objections, however, it is clear the Assad regime is coming to an end. It is coming to an end even as the U.S. continues to stand aside, at least publicly, as the uprising gathers momentum, fury and weapons. No western country has wanted to intervene publicly, as the British and French governments did so openly over Libya, with the U.S. as the main logistical backup. The reasoning has been that the costs of overt intervention in terms of casualties and money was simply too high for any western government to contemplate, regardless of the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
But now that the uprising is a rapidly growing success, Paris, London and Washington have decided to recognize the rebel opposition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In other words, the Assad regime has been formally de-legitimized in the eyes of the West. Russia and China, of course, have yet to do so. Nevertheless, the noose around the neck of the Syrian regime continues to tighten.
One domestic casualty of the violence in the Middle East has been the foreign policy career of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. She has withdrawn her name for consideration as the next secretary of state. Rice had been considered the favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton, who is stepping down to pursue her own interests, whether they be private or public. Rice came under withering criticism from Senate and House Republicans for her role in explaining the Benghazi tragedy on Sept. 11, 2012, in which the U.S. ambassador and three colleagues were brutally killed. The Republicans came close to accusing her of outright lying to the public on nationwide television news programs despite the fact she read from briefing papers prepared by the U.S. intelligence community. It was clear the Republicans would do everything they could to block her confirmation if she were to be nominated, claiming Rice was central to the government’s scandalous role in covering up what really happened in Libya. Let us be clear once and for all: Benghazi was a tragedy, not a scandal. The scandal is the Republican treatment of Ambassador Rice.
In the meantime, the thunder of artillery and rockets rumbles through the streets of Aleppo and Damascus as well as across the vast stretches of the Syrian desert. The regime may be dying, but it isn’t dead yet.
Bill Stewart, a former Foreign Service officer and correspondent for Time magazine, lives in Santa Fe. He writes weekly on current affairs.