The spreading conflict

19 Aug 2012


THE outbreak and intensity of the civil war in Syria, even after the Arab Spring arrived in Egypt, was unexpected; its consequences may be even more surprising.

Until recently, Syria’s main adversary, Israel, despite its difficulties in dealing with Damascus, was clear in its preference for the preservation of the Alawite Assad government over the likely alternative of a Sunni Islamic regime. The US concurred with this preference.

Several developments shifted this evaluation. After the ‘democracy” movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, it became politically untenable for the US administration, bound by its own ideology, not to support dissent against a dictator. The size and determination of the initial demonstrations in Syria could not be ignored.

Secondly, following the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Islamic Brotherhood behaved as a pragmatic and rational contender for power. It began to be viewed in Washington as crucial to keep the more ‘extreme’ Salafists away from power. The success in ousting Libya’s Colonel Qadhafi convinced many western leaders that low-cost external intervention, utilising air support, arms supplies and political sabotage, can be an effective tool to achieve regime change and other political goals in the Middle East.

America’s increasingly vocal support for the Syrian opposition and subsequent demand for Bashar al-Assad’s exit, however, were motivated mainly by the strategic objective of neutralising Iranian power in the Middle East.

Ironically, it was the US itself which helped Iran’s ascent when it ousted its two fiercest regional rivals: the Taliban in 2001 and Saddam Hussein in 2003. Presently, Iran’s influence is considerable in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; latent but real in Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Central Asia. It enjoys good relations with China, Russia, India and Brazil. It pursues its nuclear-enrichment programme despite the sanctions and penalties imposed against it.

The schism which opened so dramatically between the government and the Syrian opposition offered an opportunity to replace the pro-Iran Alawite government, reducing if not eliminating Iranian influence there. Even more importantly, this would sunder the only ‘land link’ between Iran and Hezbollah, Tehran’s frontline force against Israel. It is this prospect which brought Israel around to support the anti-Assad strategy.

Containing Iranian power was an objective that could be endorsed readily by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, especially in response to the Shia uprising in Bahrain. Turkey was cautious at first, fearful of Syria reviving the Kurdish ‘card’ against it. Yet, with Premier Erdogan’s ambition to lead the Arab and Muslim world by example as a working Islamic democracy, the public and bloody suppression of the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition left Ankara with no choice but to take their side and open its borders to Syria’s humanitarian, political and military ‘refugees’.

Russia’s interests, and to some extent China’s, have suffered collateral damage in the Syrian crisis. Russia has had traditional relations with Baathist Syria, as it did with Saddam’s Iraq; a deep-seated antipathy to Sunni Islamist groups, given its experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya; a stake in preventing a major shift in power towards Washington and its allies in the Middle East, and a national interest in ensuring that the Security Council is not used to justify foreign intervention in the internal affairs of states.

Although China’s interests and concerns are not identical to Russia’s, the two, in the words of a Chinese diplomat, “have been pushed into a quasi-alliance”. Avoiding the precedent of UN-sanctioned external intervention is vital for China, given its concerns about separatist Uighurs as well as Taiwan and Tibet.

The diplomacy deployed so far in the Syrian crisis was doomed to failure since both sides were determined to use it to advance their own agenda. Kofi Annan was a well-meaning victim. The focus will now shift to the battlefield.

Over the past few months, the military, political and media battle has tilted progressively against the Assad government. Syrian opposition groups are now openly receiving external military, financial and political support from their respective benefactors. This could lead to even more ruthless actions by the regime and higher civilian casualties. There are indications that there may be greater external support from Iranian, Hezbollah and other Shia groups to support the Alawite regime.

Whatever the dimensions and course of the Syrian civil war, ultimately, political change is inevitable in Damascus. No government can survive after involvement in so much publicly viewed violence against sections of its own people.

Apart from Bashar al-Assad and his close circle, all other protagonists have good reasons to work vigorously and sincerely for an early end to this bloody war which has already spread to Lebanon and may spill into Turkey and other neighbours.

Those who wish to intensify support to the regime must know that this will lead to more bloodshed and even more heightened religious, sectarian and ethnic tensions and divisions that will be difficult to heal in future. And, ultimately, it will not save the House of Assad. Of course, if in the parallel confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme, military force is threatened or used, it will eliminate any prospect of restraint from the Assad government’s regional allies.

Those who champion the Syrian opposition must see that they could be creating a Frankenstein. The opposition does not have an “army, free or otherwise”; it is more a rabble, operating in separate groups with no coordination or even common political purpose. There is considerable evidence of Al Qaeda’s infiltration of some opposition groups (a strange ally for the US); religious and ethnic cleansing and other atrocities, as well as terrorism against government and civilian targets. Those who are serving democracy and human rights should take care not to become tainted with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The shape and feasibility of a political compromise in Syria is as yet unclear. Perhaps this may resemble the Lebanese political patchwork. But a ceasefire is the essential first step. There may be preconditions, some not very palatable, to get all parties to stop fighting: a future role or a ‘safe’ transition for the Assad regime leaders; amnesty for non-criminal government security forces; elimination of terrorists and foreign elements (pro- or anti-government); assurance of security for all religious and ethnic groups in various locations.

The UN is currently exiting from Syria. If a halt in hostilities can be negotiated, a UN or OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) force may well be required to oversee the ceasefire and enable a transitional authority to build a durable structure of peace in Syria. This can be achieved only through quiet and determined diplomacy; pressure and threats will prove counterproductive. Not for the first time, the new UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, will have his work cut out for him.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.