The minister said that the tension the region is currently experiencing is only a precursor of an earthquake. He drew my attention to the recent statement by King Abdullah II, in which he referred to serious threats to the unity of Syria. He also stopped at the Turkish accusations made against Syria of arming the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The minister then highlighted a statement by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in which he spoke about the possibility of entire countries burning up and disappearing.
The minister spoke about the threats made by Israel if chemical weapons from the Syrian arsenal were to fall in the hands of extremists hostile to the Hebrew state. He said that Lebanon has been sitting on a volcano, and that the case of former minister Michel Samaha might push the volcano to erupt.
The minister said that the possibility of the Syrian regime regaining control of the whole country is now out of the question. He said that his knowledge of decision-makers in Damascus and zealous support, which the regime and the army are relying on, make him believe that the fighting will be long, bitter and devastating.
The minister believes that the collapse of the regime in Syria, if it happens, will be much more dangerous than the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. He said that Syria’s neighboring countries will face a situation far more ominous, dangerous and consequential than what Europe faced on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I listened carefully to the man, because he knows Damascus and has often carried to the decision-makers there many messages.
I was struck by the comparison to the Berlin Wall. On this day in 1961, the first brick of the wall was laid, and in November 1989, the wall fell. This event was momentous and it reverberated far beyond Berlin, but thanks to the European safety valves, and for many political, economic and cultural reasons, it was contained – despite the implosion of a superpower called the Soviet Union, which vanished from the map.
But there are no such safety valves in the Middle East, especially in the area surrounding Syria. The distance between Berlin and Damascus seems very far. The standoff in Syria has awakened all kinds of fears and questions. Some now believe that the systematic killing and destruction has torn the Syrian national fabric, and that it will not be easy for the communities of Syria to return to coexistence, especially in the absence of a firm and deterring force in control.
The old wounds between the Sunnis and the Alawites have been reopened, and rubbed with the salts of terror and hatred as a result of dispossession, demographic segregation and repeated massacres. This collapse was further exacerbated because of its overlap with Sunni-Shiite dichotomy throughout the region, as evident from the banners raised during protests against Iran and Hezbollah.
The collapse of the Damascus Wall, if it happens, raises other no less significant issues. The Kurdish question, which was galvanized by the regime to intimidate Turkey, is explosive and affects many countries. It is hard to believe that the Syrian Kurds will accept to go back to the situation they lived in on the eve of the eruption of the protests.
In truth, the status of Kurds in Syria has repercussions for Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran. There is also the concern among the Christian minorities, whom the bitter Iraqi experience has prompted to be fearful of any radical change because they believe that chaos makes it easier for them to be uprooted.
Furthermore, if Syria is to explode into cantons each living under its own army, then a troubling question will come to mind: Why would Lebanon keep its territorial integrity, if the communities of Syria divorce one another? And what about Iraq, Turkey and the stability of Jordan in this frenzied climate?
The collapse of the Syrian wall would also mean the collapse of the axis of resistance, the decline of the Iranian role and the loss of a vital artery for Hezbollah, which had enabled its existence, supported its growing role and allowed it to become a regional player – based on an arsenal that cannot be maintained without the Syrian artery.
If such a scenario sees the light of day, it will have many repercussions on Iran’s image, role and perhaps even its stability. The collapse of the Syrian wall would also mean Russia’s exit from its last remaining toehold in the Arab world, especially in a pivotal country adjacent to Israel.
The Damascus Wall portends dangers that will blight the region, should it collapse. Yet this does not help it overcome its crisis. Kofi Annan’s mission was to provide an opportunity for a gradual dismantlement of the wall under an international umbrella, but this opportunity has been missed. Now, the region is holding its breath, in preparation for what is more dangerous than the fall of the Berlin Wall.
(This article was first published in Al-Hayat on August 13, 2012)