Last Updated: Wed Mar 07, 2012 10:01 am (KSA) 07:01 am (GMT)

Syria and the region: Predicting the future

Abdullah al-Otaibi

On 29th January 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville warned the French parliament about the "gale of revolution in the air", which came to be true when the French Revolution erupted in the same year ,indeed only a few days after he made his warning. However, Tocqueville was extremely frank when he admitted, later on, "that his warning was not meant to indicate any rational expectation of what was going to happen shortly after, rather his statement was meant to awaken his colleagues from the slumber of their complacency," (The Role of the Lower Classes in Popular Uprisings, Jamal Karim 2007).

Last year, following the widespread Arab protests, some Arab clerics and intellectuals came out to publicly claim that they had anticipated such events, and many believed them. Yet I wish they had been as humble and realistic as Tocqueville, to admit that these were major, exceptional historical occurrences that no one could have predicted.

Much had been written about the future of the Middle East in general, its fragmented countries and its multiple issues, yet there was no mention in these writings about anticipations of mass protests or revolutions to overthrow the existing regimes and create a new reality. At best, we saw - after the revolutions and not before - several sincere attempts to interpret what was going on, keep track of the details and recall all possible dimensions with the aim of forming a cohesive vision. Some were successful in accomplishing this, whereas others failed.

Today in Syria, numerous observers predicted that the al-Assad regime - considering its history, and political and family experience - would be capable of committing the most savage crimes, and that the world would not be able to withstand such crimes and brutality. However, in light of recent international stances, it seems that mere profit and loss calculations have usurped all political principles, international values and human moralities.

Last week, Syria witnessed something akin to a farce, sponsored and promoted by the regime, under the title of a "constitutional referendum." This event can be classified as a black comedy; for people who are covered in blood can by no means go to polling stations, and similarly, the residents of towns and villages bombarded by tanks and missiles cannot go out in search of water or medicine, let alone cast their votes.

The farcical referendum in Syria was succeeded by a similar charade on the 2nd March, in al-Assad's strongest ally Iran, where the first parliamentary elections were held since the regime successfully quelled the "Green Revolution" in 2009, using the professional means that it mastered a long time ago. It seems that Iran has sought to export such an experience to the al-Assad regime in Syria, and has applied itself assiduously to this end, rather than being content with offering moral support. The Iranian regime has in fact offered substantial material support, something that its media outlets are still providing, and observers can see the impact on the ground. The results of the [Iranian] elections are predetermined; there will be no change in the internal or external spheres, even if some faces change.

A third charade also took place inside another of al-Assad’s major international allies; namely the Russian elections on the 4th March that did not produce anything new. The winner of that election was already predetermined, and the Putin-Medvedev seesaw is likely to continue.

Because some people believe that the Russian elections were the only obstacle hindering a change in the Russian stance towards Syria, it is now crucially important for such a viewpoint to be tested by the prospected Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs next Wednesday in Riyadh. During this meeting, GCC diplomats must persistently push towards improving the situation in Syria.

The Russian-Chinese veto has given all countries the opportunity to make their political attitudes clear, and activate their diplomatic policies and visions. By testing policies and visions in light of the multiple stances adopted and the continual negotiations, the forthcoming GCC-Russia meeting can pave the way for a more cohesive return to the Security Council, whereby the original veto can be overcome, and a stricter resolution can be issued.

Russia has cited concerns that military intervention in Syria would lead to a situation similar to that of Libya, yet in reality its eyes are focused on its interests and its struggle with the West. It is ignoring the Syrian people and is indifferent to the fact that the al-Assad regime is leading the country to a destiny far worse than Libya's, in terms of both the state and the people. Even if the current Libyan situation reflects what Abdul-Rahman Shalqam [former Libyan Representative to the United Nations] has expressed previously, about the Libyan people still suffering and the lack of security in the new Libya; then if matters continue as they are in Syria the outcome will be far worse.

The al-Assad regime's blood-thirsty policy continues to push the situation in Syria towards further escalation. What the regime is doing in Baba Amr, the outskirts of Damascus and elsewhere all seem to have prompted Syrian National Council (SNC) to accede to the demands of the Syrian people and the Gulf states to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), so that it can defend citizens against the regime's tyranny and military arsenal. Despite the significance of such a measure being adopted by the SNC, it is crucially important that two difficult conditions are met: Firstly, the SNC must ensure that all military operations in the country are conducted under a single leadership, in order to avoid possible armament chaos. Secondly, the SNC must seek to obtain foreign military assistance to act as a guarantor for the success of the armed opposition.

Perhaps the most difficult issue that the SNC, its supporters - most prominently the Gulf states, and the Syrian people need to bear in mind is that of minorities and ethnic identities, as this is a highly flammable issue on the ground. In fact, denoting full awareness and reassurance to this issue must be a long term priority. The concerns of minorities can be eliminated through a comprehensive national dialogue that preserves rights for all citizens and ensures there is no differentiation between ethnic groups.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 6, 2012

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