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The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

13.12.2011

An article by V.Naumkin “Eternal “Spring”

The period of political instability in the Arab countries of the Middle East can last longer than we think.

History develops in leaps, quiet times and stability are followed by periods of military and revolutionary unrest. One of the most surprising phenomena of 2011 was the so called Arab Spring – a series of revolutions and coups in the Middle Eastern countries after which seemingly unshakeable regimes have fallen. The calendar spring was followed by summer, summer by autumn, but there is no end in sight for the political “spring” in the Arab countries. How long more will this political boiling last? Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Vitaly Naumkin thinks that the crisis is there to stay.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Do the events in Egypt and Syria give us ground to think that the Arab Spring in becoming “eternal”?

V.Naumkin: It’s hard to make forecasts. But one can be sure that for quite a long time the turbulence in the Middle East will remain pretty high.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Some believe that the events in the Arab countries were in a significant way incited from abroad, first of all from the US. Do you agree?

V.Naumkin: US is not interested in destabilizing the situation neither in Egypt nor in most other countries. Washington’s clout is significant, but it shouldn’t be overestimated. If we talk about Egypt, one of the main means of leverage are contacts with the military, which have been in place for a long time. The military are obviously interested in continuing to receive defense aid from the US. It’s about $2,3 billion per year. A significant proportion of Egyptian officers studied in the US and is inclined towards cooperation with the Americans. But one shouldn’t forget that the US also maintains contacts with many moderate Muslim factions, who are competitors of the military. In Syria the role of the outside forces is more visible than in Egypt. There is ongoing interference from outside and unprecedented pressure on the regime, not only from the West, but also from Arab countries and Turkey which gives refuge to the deserters from the Syrian army who created the so called “Free Syrian Army” which is engaged in acts of violence against the regime forces.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: How should we value the preliminary outcomes of the Arab Spring? Have the Islamists gained more ground?

V.Naumkin: It’s clear that the result of the Arab Spring was the change of a chain of secular regimes, from Algeria to Iraq through North Africa and further to the North East, by a chain of regimes in which Islamic forces will play, to a different extent, a leading role. More radical in case of Libya, more moderate in case of Tunisia. There is also a danger of Islamists seizing power in Syria.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Should we fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a majority in the Egyptian parliament?

V.Naumkin: I don’t think so. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has the reputation of a most moderate and responsible Islamist movement, and their victory will not mean a tragedy. Yes, there will be different accents in politics, and the question is whether they will take hold of the key levers of control in the country. Still we don’t know that, and neither we know the name of the next president. I wouldn’t exclude that this could be a man formally not affiliated with the Brotherhood, but a sympathizer or a former member. In case the Islamists win and get radicalized, the Christian minority will feel very uneasy, but the Muslim Brotherhood is more moderate than, say, the Salafis. The elections law did not allow them to avoid including a woman in the ballot paper and to avoid using a woman’s name during the campaign, but on their poster they covered the face of the female candidate with a flower. The Brotherhood is more open and pragmatic, they understand that it would be hard to reinvent a country which has got used to the secular way of life.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: And what is going to happen if the Islamists came to power in Syria?

V.Naumkin: The Syrian “Muslim Brotherhood” has a more radical agenda. As I see it, the civil war in Syria has not begun yet, but the country is on its brink. The Syrian people are divided. My estimate – about 60 per cent of the population support President Bashar Assad, and these are not only Alawi, but also Druses Christians, a significant part of Kurds as well as a part of Sunni. Apart from that, power structures are on his side. The main stronghold of the regime is in the major cities – Aleppo and Damascus. In cities like Hama and Homs the opposition prevails.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Why does the Syrian last so long?

V.Naumkin: President Bashar Assad, unfortunately, reacted to the events too slowly. He had to reform the political system from the very beginning and try to achieve a compromise when it was still possible. He lost time. Today, among members the opposition as well as in Assad’s entourage, there are some irreconsible ones, not keen to negotiate. The opposition, by the way, was also trying to create a united front for too long and, as I see it, has not yet succeeded in that.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Does Assad still have time and strength for achieving a compromise? How much time do you think the Syrian regime has?

V.Naumkin: Well, I think that the window of opportunities is not shut yet, but it is becoming narrower. Assad, of course, can keep his ground in the near-term prospect, but the pressure on him is constantly rising.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Can the situation in Syria develop according to the Libyan scenario?

V.Naumkin: To my mind, an international invasion will not take place, because Russia, China and other members of BRICS are strongly opposed to that. It means that the veto right will be used at the UN Security Council voting. It is true, though, that there is a lot of talk of a possible Turkish operation aimed at seizure of a buffer zone on the Syrian territory and creating of the so called “humanitarian corridors”.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Do the Turks have right to act like that without the Security Council mandate?

V.Naumkin: They do not have such a right.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Russia prefers not to interfere much into the events of the “Arab Spring”, urging all sides to begin dialogue. So it was in Libya, Yemen, now in Syria. Does Russia have efficient mechanisms of influence on the situation in the region?

V.Naumkin: We cannot say that we could turn any of the crisis situations in the necessary direction. However, no one – neither Europe, nor even the USA have such influence. As for the situation in Syria, we are trying to reconcile the two divided parts of the society while there is still a chance for that, but we do not take sides, by that provoking a bloody civil war and interfering into internal affairs. Our main resource, however, is not an economic or military one, but a diplomatic and political. A victory of the Russian diplomacy already was uniting all BRICS states within such a position. Now their opinion is hard to be ignored.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: Some think that such a dual position has lead to political and economic losses in Libya. Can that happen in Syria as well after the fall of the Assad regime?

V.Naumkin: I want to emphasize that we do not unconditionally support Bashar Assad. Messages of President D.Medvedev to him contained calls for reforms, for the end of bloodshed and dialogue with opposition. But, of course, in case of the regime’s fall we may come across losses.

PROFILE MAGAZINE: In November, the situation around the nuclear program of Iran has become acute again, and the Israeli government has started talking about a possibility of a military strike against Iran. When is it worth waiting for it?

V.Naumkin: I consider that it won’t occur and there will be no military strikes. The statement of Israel was irresponsible. Besides, usually, when a military operation is being prepared, you don’t prattle about it. A strike against Iran, in my opinion, is not in Israel’s interest: according to the leading American experts, a military operation is capable only of braking the development of the nuclear program for a year or a year and a half, and in case of a strike Iran will definitely leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and will make the decision to create nuclear weapons. The situation in the region also speaks against the strike: recently Israel has lost a number of allies - Turkey and Egypt. Such bellicose statements are made rather in the interests of the internal political situation, in order to gain support for the current government.

FILE: Vitaly Naumkin was born in 1945. He graduated from the Institute of Oriental Languages (now The Institute of Asian and African Studies) of the Moscow State University in 1968, trained at the Cairo University and the American University in Cairo (Egypt). Has a degree of Doctor of historical sciences, Professor. Member of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES).




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