Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Syria on the road of chaos | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Over the past five months, the Baathist regime in Syria has tried to quell the state of civil disobedience that has swept the country’s cities and towns. Each time that the protesters take to the streets following Friday prayers, the Syrian regime confronts them with arms to the extent that the government – and its security apparatus – have become an enemy in the eyes of a majority of Syrian people, particularly after hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands more have been arrested or forced to flee for their lives to neighbouring countries. During the first weeks of the uprising, President al-Assad had two options: sacrificing the old regime and replacing it with a new era of reform and reconciliation, or hunkering down behind the weapons of sectarianism and politics and fighting until the bitter end. Al-Assad was aware that Arab and western countries were concerned about the prospect of change in Syria – due to the country’s strategically important location bordering Israel – fearing the rise of Islamic extremism or the country falling into a state of chaos and civil war. Indeed such fears were held even by al-Assad’s worst enemies.

For more than four decades the legitimacy of rule in Syria had been based on a mixture of nationalistic slogans and successfully – relatively speaking – providing logistical support to armed (resistance) organizations and groups. However al-Assad seems to have failed to realize the change in the international position and the regional situation following the popular uprisings that have erupted across the Middle East. If the West turned its back on the Mubarak regime in Egypt, despite its strategic importance as a regional ally, then it was extremely unlikely for anybody to defend a despotic and suppressive regime like that of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which came to power in 2000.

Realistically speaking, Bashar al-Assad was granted a number of opportunities and a measure of international tolerance during the first two months of the protests, in the hopes that he would be able to repair the damage. However it has become clear that the Syrian regime – and its partisan and sectarian apparatus – has chosen the second path: namely fighting until the last man, even if this results in civil war and the collapse of the country. The military deployment enacted by the al-Assad regime, and the operations mounted against prominent Syrian cities was not meant to deter an armed group – as claimed by the Syrian regime – but rather to deter any possible emergence of such a group. The brutal security crackdown aimed to incite those taking part in peaceful civil disobedience and cause the situation to reach a state of military confrontation. However the regime was in for a surprise, as the peaceful protests continued, and became more wide-spread day after day. This made it impossible for the regime to co-exist with these protests.

The latest statement by King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has completely lifted any Arab or regional cover away from the Syrian regime. The Saudi monarch’s statement articulated the position of many in and beyond the Arab world, namely that using force to silence peaceful protesters is completely unacceptable. King Abdullah’s statement read “what is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia. There is no justification for the bloodshed.” King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz went on to call on the Syrian regime to “stop the bloodshed and implement comprehensive and speedy reforms.”

In reality, the Saudi position [on Syria] represents an exception. Saudi Arabia’s typical policy is one of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs; however what is happening in Syria is too outrageous to be met with silence, particularly in view of regional states’ moral and historical responsibility to respond to this. There can be no doubt that the Saudi position might encourage others to take a similar stance with regards to pressuring the Syrian regime to put an end to the violence. However more important than this is the political symbolism of a country like Saudi Arabia no longer viewing the survival of the sectarian and partisan al-Assad regime as a necessity. The Saudi statement represented a very significant loss to the Syrian regime and its chances of survival.

Perhaps the most important question here is: what will happen after the Syrian regime reaches a dead end?

I don’t think that President al-Assad, after all this blood-shedding, will be capable of changing the course that he has chosen; he has become hostage to his party’s sectarian hawks who will not hesitate to get rid of him if he thinks of sacrificing them. This is a dilemma that President al-Assad will not be able to extricate himself without incurring heavy losses that could even affect those closest to him. His father, Hafez al-Assad, exiled his own brother and turned against the regime’s pillars in 1984. However the opportunity for al-Assad junior to exile his own brother Maher al-Assad – which is something that some people wished for – did not materialize, and it is very unlikely that he might resort to this now that the party’s sectarian rule is threatened and under siege from abroad. In all probability the regime will continue to try and impose a military solution, even if that means displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens who oppose al-Assad’s rule. We are dealing with a regime which believes that the only way out of this crisis is through a military solution, no matter how brutal or barbaric that might seem in the eyes of the world. Moreover, the regime realizes that the [Baathist] party and sectarian [elements] will continue to confront the people, even if the capital falls or the state no longer controls certain areas of the country. At the current time, the regime is betting that the international and Arab pressure will not reach the stage of military intervention due to the international community’s preoccupation with the war in Libya, which has yet to be resolved. Therefore the threat of the regime being toppled through foreign intervention is unlikely, unless certain regional countries, particularly Turkey, decide to get involved.

President Bashar and his regime are not likely to surrender, and the Syrian army – which is a partisan and sectarian apparatus – is incapable of surviving in its current form due to the risk of division, whilst its fate following the fall of the al-Assad regime will be dissolution. However the regime is betting on the difficulty of a pluralistic political alternative capable of undertaking the necessary role during transition emerging in Syria. As an organized entity, the Syrian opposition remains weak, and there does not seem to be any capability of healing the internal rifts that exist between the different sects, groups, and tribes within the Syrian opposition, except through strong regional intervention.

Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its importance and role by finally intervening in the Syrian crisis. Regional and international cooperation could contribute to besieging the Syrian regime, thereby weakening it, but it is nevertheless imperative for practical steps to be taken to aid the Syrians – especially the opposition – to unify their ranks and develop an alternative political project to the existing regime. If the al-Assad regime represents a significant threat to the people of Syria and regional stability, then there is no other choice but to exert earnest and genuine effort to force the regime to change its bad policies, or help the Syrian people determine their own future.

If the international community is concerned about Syria moving towards a sectarian civil war, then our obligation is to help the Syrian people develop a pluralistic political alternative to the al-Assad regime, not to mention a national charter of coexistence that would reassure Syria’s minorities and preserve their rights and role in a post al-Assad Syria. Such steps are bound to weaken the position of a regime that relies on inciting sectarian fears with regards to the consequences of its collapse. If the Syrians receive international and Arab assurances guaranteeing their legitimate political rights, ensuring that the country will not be subject to a new sectarian rule, in addition to guaranteeing that any new regime will not pursue members of the Baathist party – who are afraid to defect from the regime – in a policy of Debathification, then that would mark the end of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, in the eyes of the [Baathist] party and sectarian [elements].

In his book “Shock and Resistance” (2009), Karim Pakradouni gives an account of his first meeting with Bashar al-Assad in the mid-nineties, and relates how the young man – who wasn’t expected to succeed his father – suddenly found himself the heir apparent upon the death of his brother Bassel al-Assad. Pakradouni says that many people were not convinced with Bashar al-Assad ability or qualification to fill the political vacuum following his father’s death. According to Pakradouni, until recently many believed that Bashar al-Assad was nothing more than a nominal president serving as a front for a number of influential al-Assad family and Baathist party figures that were actually responsible for governing Syria. However since 2005 events have revealed that Bashar al-Assad alone was holding the reins of power in Syria. Pakradouni attributed this to al-Assad’s intelligence and leadership skills, and he reveals that Bashar al-Assad has revealed his life philosophy to him, with al-Assad reportedly telling him “I am professional by nature, and if I set about doing something, then I have to succeed.”

Al- Assad has shown that his professionalism in tyranny and assassination is beyond reproach. Those countries that expect him to introduce reform of his own volition do not know him well. So I tell you, beware of Bashar al-Assad’s professionalism, because he must succeed in everything that he does, including suppressing his people’s uprising [against him].