In the summer of 1989, my family decided to spend the summer holidays in Syria. The plan was for the family to spend some time in Damascus, then move on to stay in one of the country houses overlooking the orchards in Zabadani. My elder brother and I were filled with thoughts of excitement and joy regarding the mere notion of travelling abroad and escaping the monotony of summer and the heat in the city of Riyadh. After spending several days in hotels in Damascus, we found ourselves in a large country house with countless doors and windows, surrounded by a vast forest of trees. The country house lacked any modern amenities, with the exception of an outdated (black and white) television. The refrigerator was operated by a small electric generator, but there was a problem, namely that the electricity would only operate for certain hours during the night.
During the first few days we were bored and sullen; there were no cartoons or video games to occupy our time. However after a few days we got to know some boys in the house next door, who in turn volunteered to show us around their town of small lanes. We spent time in the orchards, and bought Syrian ice cream from the shops in the old town.
Although I was young at the time, something in particular caught my attention, namely the economic deprivation and hardship suffered by the people living in the countryside outside Damascus. However it never crossed my mind that the beautiful rural town of Zabadani would one day be transformed into a ghost town, besieged by tanks and bombarded [by missiles], with the noose tightening around its citizens, to the extent that unarmed families are scrambling to escape the town on foot.
On 15 January, CNN broadcasted the first news report from inside the besieged town, revealing a catastrophic and alarming humanitarian situation. The town’s residents were surprised by the CNN news crew who were able – without the knowledge of the security forces – to accompany a team of Arab observers about to enter Zabadani. The Syrian army, which was besieging the town, was also surprised by the presence of the American cable network’s cameras, which turned to film them after the observers had concluded their visit. There was a flurry of intense interest and strong emotion on both sides; the residents were unable to control their feelings of horror regarding what was happening to them, and likewise the Syrian troops appeared angry as they took away the body of a dead soldier, demanding that CNN film them in order to show the world that the demonstrations are not “peaceful”. CNN’s correspondent Nick Robertson said, after the film crew had left the area, that viewers would be reminded of the first images to emerge following the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia, where a civil war was taking place over sectarian identity.
In my opinion, the political conflict in Syria has two aspects; a political aspect, and a sectarian aspect. It would be a mistake to disregard one aspect in favor of the other. On the one hand the crisis can be seen as peaceful demonstrations against the regime, which due to the excessive use of force [on the part of the regime] has been transformed into a revolution demanding the overthrow of the regime, whether through civil disobedience and defections within the army, or by invoking Arab and international intervention. According to this assessment, the Syrian Baathist government is considered a violent, dictatorial regime that should be overthrown to liberate the unarmed civilians. However, there is another aspect to the conflict and that is the sectarian element, whereby two of Syria’s major sects – the Sunnis and the Alawites – are locked in conflict. The Sunni majority is seeking to overthrow the Alawite state, whilst the Alawites are fighting – with the support of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon – to prevent the Sunni domination of Syria after al-Assad. As for the other minorities, they have become forced to side with one or the other. If you are a supporter of Arab or international military intervention in Syria (as called for by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani), then perhaps you will see the Syrian crisis from its humanitarian or political aspect. If you are opposed to military intervention, perhaps you are opposed as a matter of principle to Western intervention in any Arab or Muslim country (a stance promoted by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby), or perhaps you are viewing the crisis from its sectarian aspect, as military intervention would likely tip the balance in favor of one sect over the other.
The debate between those advocating the withdrawal of Arab observers, and transferring the file to the UN Security Council on the one hand, and those who are striving for the Syrian regime to avoid the same fate as its Libyan counterpart on the other, is in fact a reflection of contrasting points of view about regional security. Perhaps this has formed the basis of the competing axes of resistance and moderation over the last decade. It is no secret that countries such as Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon will continue to disrupt any attempt that may pave the way for a military coup against the al-Assad regime. Thus, over time, the Syrian crisis may transform into a permanent regional problem, like Lebanon following the outbreak of civil war.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to withdraw its delegation [of observers] is a step in the right direction. The Arab League’s new initiative, which calls for al-Assad to delegate his powers to his deputy in order to form a new government with the consensus of the opposition, is a call that is long overdue given the nine months of violent clashes between the al-Assad regime and broad segments of the Syrian people. Moreover, the call to resort to the UN for assistance, and for the UN Security Council to discuss the issue after everything that has happened, demonstrates that there is no serious desire – even now – on the part of the majority of Arab countries, to bear the political and material price to change the regime in Syria.
Thus, the Saudi stance appears to be a brave exception. It is a warning against attempts to cover up for the al-Assad regime, or buy time so it can suppress the opposition by force. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said “the situation cannot continue, and we will not accept, under any circumstances, to be false witnesses, or to be exploited by whoever to justify the crimes committed against the brotherly Syrian people.” But who are the false witnesses, or those justifying the crimes? There is a growing sense that the roles being played by both Nabil Elaraby and General Muhammad al-Dabi’s [Arab League] observer mission is not conducive to resolving the Syrian crisis. Rather, they seem to be looking for justifications and excuses in order to prevent legitimacy – or Arab cover – being granted to a necessary military intervention [in Syria].
Mr. Elaraby has spoken of partial progress [In the Syrian file], and in his latest press conference he warned of comparing al-Assad to Gaddafi, on the grounds that the latter threatened to raze an entire city with his air force. However Elaraby failed to comment on al-Assad’s attack on the Gulf States, and his accusations that they are conspiring [against Syria]. He also ignored the demands of the Syrian opposition, both at home and abroad, who have stressed the necessity of the al-Assad government immediately leaving power, even if this must occur via foreign military intervention.
There can be no doubt that the survival of the al-Assad regime – in the same manner as its presence – represents a major problem for regional security, but we must also acknowledge that there is a sectarian dimension to the Syrian issue that must be dealt with in a serious manner by the Syrian opposition and the Arab states seeking to force al-Assad to leave. Failing to address the concerns of the Alawites and other minorities will only ensure that they continue to stand by the regime, because they fear that the alternative is the beginning of a Sunni autocracy, particularly if their rights are not guaranteed in a post-Assad period. They – the Alawites and the minorities – fear a similar fate to their counterparts in Iraq, and this is a natural concern after decades of single party and indeed single family rule. There are – of course – those who assume that the Syrians are better than this, and that they will instigate a national unity or coalition government immediately after the fall of the regime, but these hopes are one thing, and the reality of the sectarian war that is currently raging is something else.
If the Gulf States and the Arab League are serious about al-Assad leaving, they must issue a resolution to proceed with a no-fly zone, and impose secure areas for citizens – like UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya – and then discuss the transitional phase, in particular the sectarian issue. There is an urgent need to convince the Syrian opposition, at home and abroad, to ensure the rights of the Alawites and other minorities, and pledge not to prosecute those affiliated to the Baathist party. This is the only way to prevent the Syrian situation from transforming into a permanent civil war.
It is truly painful to see the landscapes of my childhood and the scene of so many fond memories transformed into battlegrounds, to see the fields of rural Syria and the famous Norias of Hama overcome with fear and the smell of gunpowder. However, the consolation is that the Syrians can overcome the legacy of their deplorable past, and establish a civil, democratic future far-removed from the language of arms and sectarianism. The manner in which Bashar al-Assad leaves power is not important, rather what is important is sectarian harmony [in Syria] following the demise of his regime.