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The Syrian stalemate

February 27, 2012

MY last article on the Arab Spring (Feb 14) expressed the apprehension that all the subtexts of the Arab awakening were heading for a bloody dénouement in Syria. Since then, the internal and external elements that invest the Syrian crisis with extraordinary salience have worsened.

President Bashar al-Assad’s reformist plans still move at a glacial pace whereas the punitive action against the hotspots of armed dissent has been intensified. The Arab League is focused less on mediation and more on the internationalisation of the crisis to bring Assad down.

The Syrian National Council, the umbrella organisation of dissidents and rebels, remains divided. Russia and China had not opposed the UN resolution of Nov 22, 2011 on the use of force in Syria but firmly vetoed a subsequent Security Council resolution in the midst of misgivings that it might be misinterpreted to launch military intervention on the Libyan model.

Washington has not abandoned caution though it repeated the threat of unspecified additional measures at the recent conference of the Friends of Syria in Tunis. Pakistan has faithfully followed the lead given by the Arab League though it had the alternative of making a comprehensive statement on the situation in the Security Council and abstaining in the vote on the grounds that, historically, it does not take a partisan position on intra-Arab disputes.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Sunni organisations seem to be jumping into the fray with arms for the embattled Syrian protesters even as official Baghdad continues to be sensitive to Tehran’s perception that the attempted regime change in Damascus seeks to cripple Iran’s outreach to Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iranian warships too have paid a visit to a Syrian port and senior officials from Moscow and Beijing have held talks with Assad.

Nowhere else has the Arab Spring created such a dangerous mix of factors that may lead to protracted bloodshed as in Syria, which is a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic and politically divided society. The outcome will almost certainly trigger off a seismic shift in the regional balance of power.

The risk of fragmentation in Syria will increase if the current demands from some western and Arab sources to create the so-called ‘no-kill zones’ or humanitarian corridors near the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are conceded. The weakening of the Syrian state will have substantial implications for the Arab posture towards Israel, Lebanon, Turkey’s role in the region, and above all, for Iran.

In Syria, the majority Sunni population, held down by an Alawite-dominated regime, particularly since Hafez al-Assad’s bloody suppression of the city of Hama in February 1982, will certainly assume a more assertive role. Paradoxically, the West will have to contend with democracy bringing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to the forefront.

Present-day Syria, much diminished in land mass as a consequence of post-Ottoman western engineering of the states of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is heir to a great and eventful history stretching far beyond the advent of Islam and Christianity. Not many countries have known the same diversity of peoples and creeds.

Following the French mandate, its politics was characterised by a series of coups that continued even after the Syrian Baathists seized power in March 1963. Hafez al-Assad imposed stability with his authoritarian rule from November 1970 till his death in 2000. The smooth transition to his son, Bashar al-Assad, ushered in a period of hope known as the Damascus Spring, the rapid fading away of which provides an essential point of reference for the current struggle for multi-party democracy, ethnic and sectarian equality and freedom of speech.

The dynamics of this populist upsurge threatened the status quo built around the dominant position of the Syrian Alawites — a mere 12 per cent of the population — who gained pre-eminence under the Baathists by pursuing urbanisation, education and state service, both civilian and military.

In a fateful development, Bashar al-Assad has relied heavily on Alawites, Christians and other minorities to suppress the movement that began in January 2011. By mid-March, however, this movement had congealed into a relentless demand for the resignation of the president, a prospect favoured by the West and most of the Arab League members. Persistent use of force produced a retaliatory militarisation of the dissidents and a nascent civil war.

Particularly egregious has been the tendency to defend the regime by pitting Alawites, Christians and the Druze against the protesters routinely described as foreign agents and Islamic extremists. Since the ninth century, Syrian Islam has found it difficult to accept the Alawites — originally known as Nusayris — whose complex creed has assimilated Christian concepts such as trinity and a divine persona for Hazrat Ali.

The French adopted the Alawites and, at one stage, even toyed with the idea of carving a separate homeland out of Syria for them in return for perpetual loyalty. Apprehensions of a future majoritarian government visiting retribution on them and other loyalist minorities are real and represent a serious obstacle in Assad’s own plans for a ‘model democracy’ through state-sponsored constitutional reforms.

This fear locks him into a policy of timid concessions that are too little and too late. Unfortunately, the Arab League has not been very resolute or creative in pre-empting such dark scenarios through dialogue and has increasingly lined up with the West to concentrate on a regime change.

The withering away of the present Syrian state, an unabashed national security entity, may benefit Israel that has been trying to colonise the Golan Heights captured by it in 1967 and establish paramount rights over the Jordan River. For Syria itself, it is also not at all clear how the national economy hurt by severe sanctions would be rehabilitated and how a future government would organise its relations with Lebanon and the Hezbollah.

What will be the shape of things if Assad somehow weathers the storm? Unless wiser counsels prevail, Syria may be another Muslim state left destabilised and fragmented by a combination of internal contradictions and external interference.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of Pakistan.