Sixteen months into the anti-regime rebellion in Syria, the world is at a loss over how to end the bloodbath unleashed by the rulers of Damascus. Short of a Libya-style military intervention, there is little hope of persuading Syria’s military commanders that they would be better off getting rid of the regime than continuing to support the autocratic rule of the Alawite minority.
From the outset of the revolt, in March 2011, the Syrian rulers turned it into a sectarian uprising led by the country’s majority Sunnis against the Alawites. In a way it makes sense, but only to the extent that the Syrians are fed up with four decades of Alawite rule, which is due to the French colonial powers of the 20th century, and have been inspired by the revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.
When the rebellion manifested itself in the form of peaceful demonstrations in Deraa, the regime was alarmed and overreacted speedily. It ordered its security forces to put down the protests at whatever cost. Damascus also wanted to set an example for the people that they would pay heavily for any anti-regime activities.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was once seen as a moderate leader, had and still has his compelling reasons to continue to use loyalist forces and hope to put down the uprising. Although called a dictator, he is not necessarily in control of the situation. The Alawite elite of the country would not allow him to exercise his options — if indeed he has any — to solve the crisis through negotiations.
The Syrian regime knew well that it could not order the ordinary units of the military to open fire against civilians because this would trigger large-scale defections. Tunisia had set a precedent when its military refused to use violence against rebellious crowds demanding the ouster of the long-time autocrat Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali early last year. Egypt followed and again, the military stayed put and refused to open fire against protesters, although the military commanders have now proved to be hijackers of the country’s pro-democracy revolution. In Yemen, a segment of the military defected to the ranks of the rebels challenging the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and brought it down last year.
Many expected the Syrian military to follow suit. But it never happened because the regime had foreseen it. It stayed away from trying to use the ordinary military units to crush the rebellion, but it did not have enough special units to contain the situation. Therefore, the first thing it did was to instill fear among the Alawites — who represent some 12 to 15 per cent of the population — that they were fighting for their survival. Parallel to that, it expanded the shabiha militia — modeled along the “neighborhood committees” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — and unleashed it against rebellious areas. These militiamen, who were armed from the well-stocked military warehouses of the presidential guards — are now running their own shows in areas under their control. The May 26 massacre in Houla was an example. More than 100 people, most of them civilians, were slaughtered by the Alawite militia supported by military tanks.
The militiamen have become increasingly bold because their actions go unquestioned as long as they suit the purpose of the regime to wipe out dissent.
So it is a two-pronged assault against the people of Syria, one led by special military units driven by strong pro-regime loyalty and the other by the shabiha militia. The fighters of the opposition movement are far from being equipped to meet the challenge.
Washington, which has publicly ruled out doing business with the Assad regime, has ruled out military intervention in Syria, but its European allies are showing signs that they might have already been involved on the ground. British and French special forces are said to be present in Syrian territory guiding anti-regime military operations.
Diplomacy has no chance of success in the effort to solve the crisis as long as Russia and China stand behind the Syrian regime.
Many attribute the Russian backing for Assad to Moscow’s sales of weapons to Syria and the presence of a Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous. But there are other, far more important, considerations.
International experts, as well as Moscow watchers, say that the Russian leadership fears that Islamists could emerge as the dominant force in a post-rebellion Syria. Not that an Islamist-ruled Syria would pose any threat to Russia, but Moscow fears that Islam could reach its shores and would have a destabilising effect in the country. It is already alarmed by the rise of Islam in unrest-hit North Africa and in former Soviet republics. It will do anything in its power to contain the challenge it perceives as confronting it sooner or later.
It is difficult to see, to say the least, an early end to the Syrian crisis. One does not know how strong the reported international efforts to unify the splintered opposition movement and supply heavier arms to the rebel fighters are. No matter how effective the effort is, it is clear that foreign powers have their own designs on Syria.
However, that is only one side of the affair. The other involves fear of many Syrians that Islamists could impose their rule on the country. This is particularly true for the country’s Christians, and the regime is playing this card of fear amongst them and on other minorities, such as the Kurds.
Parallel to any military effort, a campaign should be launched to convince Syria’s minorities as well as secularists that the Islamists have no intention to impose religion-based rule on them in post-Assad era. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is leading the Syrian street, could show the way through clear and unambiguous statements and actions.
Without convincing the minorities and need-based supporters of the Assad regime that they will not be victimized or persecuted, the Syrian conflict is here to stay for some time, in spite of Kofi Annan’s second initiative this week, which is intended to save his first initiative that was shot dead by the Assad regime.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on June 30, 2012