Between 1991 and 1995 over 300,000 people were killed in Bosnia in one of the bloodiest periods in modern history during which the U.S. refrained from intervening under the pretext that this was a purely European problem which the Europeans should resolve themselves. However Europe was unable to intervene for a different set of reasons, most prominently Russia’s objection to any military intervention in the crisis. For over three years, the U.N. sent peacekeeping forces to Bosnia; however these troops were lacking the powers and arms to confront the Serbian killing machine.
This balance changed only after the Americans decided to intervene, whilst everybody turned a blind eye to the arming of the Muslims at a time when the Americans had entered into difficult negotiations with both the Russians and the Europeans, aiming to reach a solution to stop the crimes against humanity that were being committed by the Serbian forces against the Croatians and Muslims. Following a series of negotiations over a period of 14 weeks, the parties ultimately reached the Dayton Agreement in December 1995.
In his book “To End a War” (1999), Richard Holbrook, the then Special Assistant to Under Secretary of State, indicated that the State Department’s delay in intervening in Bosnia led to catastrophic consequences, most prominently the collapse of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to mention the difficulty in restoring trust between the different races and sects to the pre-war levels.
On the one hand, the domestic conflicts and terrible massacres caused a state of deeply-rooted hostility and rage between the Serbs and the Muslims whereby coexistence seemed difficult to achieve as a result of the huge death toll. Holbrook adds that although he, together with his colleagues, were aware that they were conducting an impossible mission, they had no other choice but to try and convince the different parties that it was time to stop the bloodshed, and that the only way for peace to prevail was through forgiveness and thinking of the future generations.
Doesn’t this history remind us of what is happening today in Syria where the sectarian Baathist regime has transgressed all bounds with regards to its brutal crimes against humanity committed under Russian – Iranian cover, not to mention logistical and propaganda support from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, as well as the complicity of other regional parties? Today, the U.S. and some European states seem reluctant to confront what is happening in Syria. In fact, even after the regime committed an inhumane massacre targeting women and children in Houla, the U.N. Security Council could barely condemn this, whilst international special envoy Kofi Annan travelled to Syria to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without expressing his condolences to those who had lost family members in this terrible war crime.
In view of this agonizing scene, it is clear to us that the Syrian civil state we knew over the past decades - or at least what remains of this – is heading towards the abyss, and we may reach a stage where it will be extremely difficult to restore the infrastructure of the state, or even social peace in Syria. The gravest danger facing the Syrian state today is not in the al-Assad regime staying in power, for it has exhausted all options and attempts to cling to power; rather the gravest danger lies in the decay of the sovereignty of the Syrian state, whereby Syria becomes a “failed” state, and unfortunately this is the most likely scenario.
Anyone who looks at the reality of the Syrian opposition abroad and its reoccurring divisions will no doubt despair of the Syrian people’s ability to conduct a political transition should the regime actually be toppled. What is even more dangerous is that, until now, we have not seen the emergence of any political figures qualified to fill the void at the presidential palace.
In fact, the Syrian people’s inability to bring in a convincing and effective political alternative from abroad, as well as the fragmented opposition at home and their weak association with opposition institutes abroad, all represent signs of the imminent disappearance of the Syrian state as we know it. Present-day Syria seems to be a combination of the Iraqi and Lebanese experiences, as the regional and sectarian situation is now increasingly difficult to resolve. Even if the existing regime is toppled today, there is no indication or evidence that the Syrian people are capable of establishing an alternative political regime that can provide confidence and reassurance to the Syrian general public, regardless of what community or sects they belong to, or what political views they hold.
I’m not raising this question in order to frustrate the Syrian people or play down their attempts to liberate themselves from an abusive and criminal regime; however this question must be asked in order to demonstrate the fragility and weakness of the current situation in Syria. The Bashar al-Assad regime was successful in suicidally provoking sectarian sedition and national division based on sectarian and ideological affiliations.
More than this, the regime has also managed to internationalize the issue and involve some regional parties in the Syrian arena. What has happened in Lebanon over the past month is an indication of the deplorable situation in Syria, for the regime has managed to embroil neighboring states such as Lebanon and Iraq in the Syrian crisis, and we have also seen an increasing influx of Syrian refugees crossing the borders into Lebanon and Turkey, whilst these countries are unable to deal with all of these refugees, and strong international efforts have yet to crystallize to relieve these victims. The scene depicted by Samir Atallah in his column a few days ago is very painful. He wrote, “in Lebanon, we are accustomed to seeing Syrian laborers everywhere, they have come here [to Lebanon] for many years in order to build and till the land. However we have never seen [Syrian] workers who are just 12-years old, coming here to mix cement and undertake labor. This is a war.”
Of course, some people may not like to acknowledge these realities, yet it is necessary for all parties to be aware of what is happening if they truly want to end the bloodshed in Syria and restore security and stability to this country. It is truly sad that Bashar al-Assad and his cronies can destroy the Syrian state – along the lines of the Samson Option – during this difficult time of change that is reverberating across the Syrian arena.
We must remember that Syria, since its independence, experienced instability, represented by reoccurring coups, until late President Hafez al-Assad came to power. Despite all the evils and sins of his rule, this was the only period during which the Syrian state managed to achieve relative stability, and this was only due to the excessive violence practiced by the state against the public. However after Bashar al-Assad came to power, this illusionary stability was revealed and replaced by a state of civil war.
In the 1970s, late professor Edward Azar, an American professor of Lebanese descent who was a prominent expert in the history of Middle Eastern struggles, kept a watchful eye on the civil war in Lebanon. On the eve of the signing of the Taif Agreement, Azar was diagnosed with cancer and sadly passed away over a year later.
In one of his most prominent books “Emergence of the New Lebanon: Fantasy or Reality?” (1984), Azar warned that the demographic imbalance - caused by the rise in the Shiite population– in Lebanon in the 1960 and 1970 undermined the country’s chances of stability. He stressed that whether we liked it or not, political participation will change based on the childbirth rates of each sect, as well as with every migrant who leaves the country to escape discrimination and sectarian intimidation. Azar wrote that regardless of Lebanon’s future, its pluralism would never serve as a barrier to prevent the Shiites from playing a key role in determining the fate of the country; whether good or evil. Indeed, Azar was right and his prophecy was fulfilled. Hezbollah, a fundamentalist hard-line party, managed to occupy the country and impose the interests of its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus on Lebanon, which became an arena for foreign powers.
What Azar once dreaded for Lebanon is today reoccurring in the Syrian scene. The Baathist party’s unilateral hegemony, and its exploitations of the fears of the minorities, has, in fact, incited a civil war between two parties in Syria: one party that is attempting to cling to power by carrying out the most barbaric crimes in order to intimidate the people, whilst the other party is largely without arms, with a small group of fighters attempting to resist the regime’s killing machine, which is claiming the lives of their own people.
It is no secret that with the ouster of that regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp leadership would perhaps lose an ally, or rather a subordinate, in Damascus. Perhaps, the Iranians now believe that it is better to help the Syrian regime completely destroy the country in order to prevent the Syrian people from liberating their country from that so-called axis of “resistance” [to Israel]. With every day that passes under this regime, Syria moves closer and closer to total collapse.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on June. 2nd, 2012