Arab Spring turns toxic

The overthrow of dictators in the Middle East has mostly led to more of the same.

The overthrow of dictators in the Middle East has mostly led to more of the same.

WITH every new set of pictures that appears showing the bloodied victims of the latest atrocity committed in Syria, the clamour intensifies for the West to launch some form of military intervention to prevent further bloodshed.

It is a perfectly understandable human reaction. No civilised society wants to see the bodies of innocent women and children displayed every evening on the television news. If something can be done to spare the victims of Syria's embryonic civil war, then we have a moral obligation to act.

This has become a familiar refrain ever since the wave of popular protests swept the Arab world early last year. First we were encouraged to lend our support to the overthrow of the corrupt Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. This was quickly followed by calls for the removal of the other North African dictatorships, with the fall of Egypt's long-standing dictator President Hosni Mubarak, eventually followed by the less edifying demise of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Before long this unexpected display of people power had become the "Arab Spring", and from Bahrain to Yemen, Syria to Saudi Arabia, we were urged to support the removal of all the region's despots.

Personally, I've always been rather wary of this somewhat naive rush to back change for change's sake. It's not that I have any great desire to see these corrupt and anachronistic autocracies propped up ad infinitum it is more a question of pragmatism, of wanting to know what kind of government is going to replace them.

If the experiences of the past year are anything to go by, the protests can hardly be judged a success story. Of all the countries affected by the turmoil, Tunisia is arguably the only one that has made a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The accommodation of the Islamist-oriented al-Nahda (the renaissance) movement in Tunisia's new coalition government has been achieved without jeopardising the foundations of the country's secular constitution. Even so, only last month hundreds of Islamist rioters went on the rampage, attacking bars and shops that sell alcohol, a turn of events that is unlikely to boost Tunisia's attractiveness to Western holidaymakers.

Elsewhere, the omens are even less encouraging. Eight months after Colonel Gaddafi's brutal murder, Libya remains in thrall to the warring bands of militias some of them al-Qaeda acolytes which are determined to hold on to their independent fiefdoms, rather than embrace the cause of democratic reform Libyans were promised if they supported Gaddafi's overthrow.

In neighbouring Egypt, meanwhile, where the defiant protests in Tahrir Square last year fostered the belief that wholesale democratic reform was about to sweep the Arab world, the choice for Egypt's 50 million voters is between the military and the Islamists, two groups not renowned for their commitment to democracy.

This depressing pattern is repeated throughout the region. The political instability in Yemen following President Ali Abdullah Saleh's retirement has resulted in a dramatic upgrade in al-Qaeda's terrorist capabilities, while attempts by Bahrain's ruling family to reconcile their differences with Shiite Muslim dissenters have been undermined by the pernicious involvement of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, whose long-term ambition is to overthrow the country's Sunni Muslim monarchy.

So much, then, for the "Arab Spring", which is an intellectually flawed concept dreamt up by those who conveniently overlook the forces at play in Arab countries.

This is particularly true in Syria, where the minority Alawite clan headed by Bashar al-Assad, which represents just 10 per cent of the population, is involved in a desperate battle for survival against the majority Sunnis.

There are no doubt some members of the Syrian opposition who would genuinely like to see a more democratic system of government established in Damascus. But as the recent experience of similar protest movements in Libya and Egypt demonstrates, the voices of those calling for Western-style liberal reforms are invariably crushed by the more ruthless, and better organised, forces of militant Islam and military tyranny.

It is for this reason that, as the West weighs its options for Syria, it should proceed with the utmost caution.

There is always the possibility that the Assad dictatorship will be replaced by a Western-style democracy similar to that in neighbouring Lebanon. But in view of the growing influence of al-Qaeda and other hardline Islamist groups in the conflict, that seems a remote possibility. Saudi Arabia, the country that gave the world al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has emerged as one of the most influential backers of the rebels, with all the implications that could have for the country's post-Assad settlement. The Saudis' growing involvement in the conflict, moreover, has led to an increase in Iranian activity, with detachments of Revolutionary Guards being sent to Damascus to save Assad.

The Syrian conflict certainly has all the potential of turning into a major regional conflict between the competing forces of militant Shiite and Sunni Islam. If that happens, the West will be hard-pressed to choose which side it wants to win.

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