By Tatul hakobyan
Expert, “Civilitas” foundation
On January 4, 2011, Mohamad Bouazizi, 27, died of deep burns. The young man, a street vendor in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, self-immolated as a sign of protest. The young Arab’s death became the last drop: tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets, and couple of days later, February 14, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who reigned 23 years, had to escape to the Saudi Arabia.
The “Arab spring” is now the common name, given to the process of permanent toppling of dictator regimes in the Arab countries. Ben Ali was smart enough to get rid of power almost without resistance and victims and left the country. Overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen led to thousands of deaths.
Street riots against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes also took place in some other countries: Algeria, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia. Now the “Arab spring” is knocking at the Syrian doors, threatening its authoritarian leader Bashar al-Asad. Will the revolution satisfy itself with the Arab World, or its wave will cover the countries far beyond the Maghreb, Middle East, reaching, in particular, the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the CIS territory as a whole? They have their own numerous authoritarian leaders, unwilling to leave their thrones.
To get the answer to this and other questions, it is necessary to understand how “spontaneous” the “Arab spring” is and whether the street protests, which escalated in Libya and bow in Syria into bloody clashes between the governmental forces and opposition, are used by the West to topple the undesired regimes.
Undoubtedly, Bouazizi, who decided to set himself on fire, and millions of Arabs, who had suffered in the claws of corrupt and anti-popular regimes for decades, rushed to the streets on their own. But the hand of superpowers appeared behind these processes quite soon. European countries helped the rebels in Libya, the same situation is in Syria, but with certain exceptions: the West and Turkey help and arm rebels, China helps the Syrian authorities in the UN, and Russia helps the al-Asad regime with arms.
When people took to the streets in Jordan, these facts were ignored by the western media; the USA with the influential European countries supported the King of Jordan, Abdullah II. Jordan remains a loyal and reliable partner of the West in the vulnerable Middle and Near East. The same situation is with the Gulf countries: for example, the people of small Bahrain was quite a long time on the streets under the influence of the “Arab spring”, but the western media did not notice it.
Meanwhile mass media in Iran (Armenia’s immediate neighbor, a non-Arab country, although quite a lot Arabs live in the south of the country), Syria and Lebanon follow the situation in Bahrain quite carefully, because it is mostly populated by Shiites, but ruled by Sunnis. And it is no coincidence at all. Iran, as a heart of the Shiite world, Syria, which is ruled by Shiites, who are just 15% of the population, and Lebanon, the homeland of the military political block “Hezbollah” (“The Party of Allah”), are confident that the “Arab spring” is nothing but a “weapon” in the hands of the West: the Americans and Europeans wish to remove the Shiites from power.
Indeed, the triangle Lebanon-Syria-Iran has recently become the target for the West, and it should worry Armenia and Diaspora for some concrete reasons. Let us single out just three circumstances.
First: Lebanon, Syria and Iran are the countries, which in some international structures and forums if not support Armenia, but at the same time do not display unambiguous and unequivocal assistance to Azerbaijan. The regimes in these countries are friendly toward Armenia and their own Armenian populations.
Second: there are quite big Armenian communities in Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
Third: Iran is one four countries, bordering Armenia, and unlike Turkey and Azerbaijan, it does not block its border with Armenia. Even more, during the last two decades Iran has been one of the most reliable windows, providing Armenia with access to the outside world.
Is the “Arab spring” challenging the authoritarian leaders in the South Caucasus? What kind of consequences it might have for Armenia and the Armenian world – the Diaspora?
In the age of information technologies, any event in the world echoes in each corner of the planet. “The Arab spring” excited the opposition in the post-Soviet societies, however, no opposition street movement has achieved any serious success in the whole post-Soviet space so far. There were successful attempts of toppling regimes Georgia (the Rose revolution in 2003), Ukraine (2004, the Orange revolution) and Kyrgyzstan (2005, the Tulip revolution) on the wave of street movements. Then the wave of revolutions in the CIS countries calmed down. It seems that the West has accepted the situation that the CIS countries are ruled by semi-authoritarian, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It is also a difficult thing for the West, because such countries are tied with the Kremlin with multiple threads and are in the sphere of the Russian influence.
Syria and other Arab countries, where there are Armenian communities, as well as Iran should be in the focus of attention of Armenia and the Armenian World by various reasons. Just the Syrian example:
First: unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, where the “Arab spring” has already overthrown the former leaders, the internal political war in Syria displays the trend of being long-term. The international community, instead of pressuring President al-Asad to enforce him making serious political reforms (apparently, he is ready for substantial concessions, but not losing power), demands resignation of the Syrian leader. Al-Asad does not resign. It is difficult to predict how the Syrian events will end. Most probably the bloodshed will continue. The Syrian opposition, being “entrenched” in the Turkish territory, instigates the Syrian rebels to struggle against the al-Asad regime. There is bloodshed, thousands of peaceful citizens die. Armenians are also among victims. The Armenian 80.000-community of Syria, mostly residing in Aleppo, Ghamyshli, Latakia, Kesab and Damascus districts, is trying to keep neutrality. Such a behavior is, undoubtedly, reasonable, being the least of evils. But it is apparent that neutrality is not enough to avoid losses and victims. Fortunately, the Armenian quarters have not become the areas of clashes between the governmental forces and rebels, although the situation in the capital city Damascus and the second largest city Aleppo is not quiet at all, especially in the recent weeks.
Second: the continuation of the civil war and bloodshed will force the Syrian Armenians search for more stable places. It is understandable: they are worried with their own physical security. Unlike the other countries with large Armenian communities, Syria and Lebanon play a key role for the whole Armenian nation. Beirut and Aleppo have been the main areas for decades, giving the Armenian people priests, intelligentsia, teachers and those, who care for the survival of the nation. The keepers of the Armenian spirit in Australia, America and Europe for decades have been the sons of Aleppo and Beirut. They left Aleppo and Beirut, bringing with them the Armenian spirit to the whole world. The viability of the Armenian Diaspora and survival of the Armenian spirit are directly linked with Aleppo and Beirut.
Third, it is the interest of the Republic of Armenia. No doubt that the West is trying to limit the power of Shiites in the Arab World and Muslim East. In case of success in Syria, the next targets will be Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran. Hezbollah is a serious force in Lebanon today. The war against this organization will be a challenge to Lebanese Armenians. In case of the war the last remnants of the 50.000-community will have to emigrate. But much worse is the situation with Iran. Armenia will face a complicated choice in case of the war and military strikes against this country.