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A creeping intervention

July 31, 2012

A RETROSPECTIVE look at the last 20 months of the ‘Arab awakening’ highlights some observations. One needs to enumerate some of them as they impinge upon what has by now become a bloody civil war in Syria.

In the Syrian conflict there is a creeping outside intervention, though the pros and cons of an overt, large-scale military intervention are still being weighed. This procrastination is partly related to the resilience of Bashar al-Assad’s well-armed regime and partly to the diplomatic positions taken by Russia and China.

First and foremost amongst the observations is that Arab uprisings are indigenous and are mainly directed against rulers who have been in power for decades and whose regimes have lost legitimacy as well as contemporary relevance. Two, none of the uprisings have had clear roadmaps beyond dismantling authoritarian structures. Three, given the strategic salience and the energy resources of the North African and Middle Eastern countries, the West took an instant interest in shaping the outcome of the uprisings; in some cases, it might have begun creating space for doing so years in advance in case such political changes took place, mostly by supporting social media, potential bloggers and other opinion-makers.

Four, the degree of outside interest was largely determined by geopolitical location and the business of oil and gas; the traditional geostrategic interest was matched by economic interest in the region’s resources. Five, western powers have been able to work in partnership with regional states seeking to alter the strategic landscape to Iran’s detriment. Six, establishing a viable new order has turned out to be more challenging than anticipated.

As events have evolved, the Syrian conflict may herald internal and external changes deeper and more seminal than in Egypt, where the armed forces quickly worked themselves into the equation. Syria paid a high price for the way Egypt ended the 1973 Ramazan war; the Baathist regime hardened and dissociated itself from the post-1973 Middle East peace process. It became the principal regional state to maintain a strong relationship with Russia and more importantly, entered into a new strategic partnership with Iran; a powerful spur of this alliance reached out to Lebanon, especially Hezbollah.

By all accounts, Syrian protests might have remained peaceful but for gratuitous use of force, first witnessed during a peaceful demonstration in Darra. The Syrian strategic planners made obvious mistakes. It was time for far-reaching reforms that should have created an open, inclusive and democratic polity. Assad should also have voluntarily redressed the imbalance between the Sunni majority and the Alawite elite enjoying a disproportionate share of state power. Again, the regime should have known from the history of current uprisings that it was in no position to repeat with impunity the suppression of the city of Hama in 1982.

During this period of viable options, Damascus received much good advice from Turkey, an old friend and neighbour that would be directly affected by an upheaval in Syria. Unfortunately, it was spurned and eventually Syria lost Turkey’s valuable support. Turkey is mindful of the implications of Syria’s disintegration for the transnational Kurdish question. It also knows that neither the ‘Salafi’ warriors who have flocked to Syria nor the Alawite militia, Shabiha, would undergo a Damascene conversion to a liberal, equitable and secular dispensation warranted by Syria’s confessional demography and history. More likely they will battle on. Turkey is, therefore, still carefully calibrating its ‘intervention’.

Syria will find it extremely difficult to reclaim lost time. What began as an internal quest for democratic reforms has by now become a full-scale civil war in which several western and regional governments are deeply involved. By exercising veto thrice at the UN, Russia and China have denied a UN flag to intervention; Kofi Annan’s plan would have had the same effect. President Putin warned on July 23 that there would be chaos if violence is not ended, negotiations are not undertaken and a constitutional basis for a future Syria is not laid. But as the events following the July 18 assassination of some key regime figures have shown, the Syrian conflict has entered a most dangerous phase.

Without any doubt, an outstanding feature of this phase is the greatly enhanced outside interference. Many western analysts concede that outside military intervention has already begun and the only question now is about its future form and extent. Following the Russian-Chinese veto, Washington was reported to have decided to provide greater support to the armed rebels of Syria. Former British Special Air Service officers are reportedly training Arab fighters streaming into Jordan en route to Syria.

The Arab states are mainly focused on breaking up the so-called Iran-sponsored Shia crescent of which Damascus is the lynchpin. In doing so, they seem to have moved from financing and arming the Syrian opposition to an organised infiltration of ‘jihadists’. Western correspondents have confirmed the presence amongst them of ‘Al Qaeda’ sympathisers who have a strong sectarian motivation. Iran has reiterated its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime; in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has reassured the Syrian army that Hezbollah would stand by it.

The Syrian movement for human rights, dignity and majoritarian democracy stands heavily militarised. And yet it is by no means certain that the rebels can defeat the Syrian army that has been given a much freer hand after the Damascus attack of July 18. Again, there is no guarantee anymore that Bashar al-Assad’s departure by itself would bring the kind of relative tranquillity that was witnessed in Egypt once Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Some western think tanks now glibly talk of an all-out sectarian conflict in the entire Levant, the outcome of which is hard to predict. While Syria teeters on the verge of chaos, the entire region may suffer a body blow from which it may not recover for decades. Only those who have worked overtime to frame regional issues as a Saudi-Iran contest or a Shia-Sunni conflict would celebrate.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.