Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The exposed and the hidden in the Syrian crisis | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Where will the Syrian crisis go from here? The people are unarmed, whilst the regime is using the highest degree of violence to quell the uprising, and therefore the equation does not add up. There are those who are counting on the regime not being able to deploy its troops everywhere, and that if the protesters remain resolute and continue their uprising then the regime will exhaust itself, or perhaps its forces will become divided and turn on one another. However this scenario means that the crisis in Syria will be drawn out and the Syrian people will pay an exorbitant price in their confrontation with a regime that has shown that it is not afraid to use its entire military and security apparatus to quell the uprising and suppress the demonstrators. This is not to mention the huge death toll and the statements of condemnation and denunciation that have been issued by the Arab world and international community. In addition, the regime is utilizing pro-regime troops, who are led by officers whose best interests are served by the survival of the al-Assad regime; and this explains why they are fighting so hard, namely to protect their own interests and ensure that they remain in power.

The moral question that we must ask here is: will the Syrian people be left to confront a merciless regime alone?

Explicit Arab stances were announced denouncing the Syrian regime’s suppression of its own people. The strongest such stance was issued by Saudi Arabia, with King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz issuing a clear, direct, and unprecedented message advising and indeed warning the Syrian regime, and condemning the suppression and torture of civilians. The Gulf States and the Arab League have also condemned the Syrian regime’s policy of confronting the protests and the excessive use of force. In fact, such positions represented a step forward when compared to the previous policy of silence, with condemnation and pressure only being exerted behind closed doors. The problem is that while this condemnation and denunciation may offer spiritual support to the demonstrators, they do not significantly change the reality on the ground. This is because the Syrian regime, just like other regimes that are indifferent to public opinion, will close its ears and avert its face, proceeding with its policy of violence and torture to quell the uprising.

Damascus is betting – in light of the global economic crisis, ongoing NATO operations in Libya, and the US and Britain burning their fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan – that the international community, particularly the Western states, will not opt for military intervention in Syria. This is externally, however internally the Syrian regime is betting that the US – regardless of its hatred of the regime – would prefer for the regime to survive than to risk an unknown alternative, or witness the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as a power in the Syrian political arena which borders Israel, particularly with regards to the existence of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the signs of the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasing influence in Egypt. Perhaps the Syrian regime has understood, from the US statements on this issue, that Washington would prefer political reform, rather than regime change.

The Syrian regime’s deciphering of the diplomatic code has brought it to this conviction, for although Washington strongly condemned the al-Assad regime and imposed sanctions against some of its symbols; it did not publicly or overtly call for the end of the regime. In an interview with CNN, the US Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] alluded to Washington’s fears that the Syrian opposition has no clear leader to liaise with. Clinton said that despite the presence of opposition figures both inside and outside of Syria, and the presence of the courageous people of Syria who are confronting the regime, there is no well-organized opposition with a known leader that can be dealt with. When the interviewer asked Clinton why Washington does not take the step of pressuring the Syrian regime and overtly and explicitly demanding al-Assad to step down, she answered “Syria has a lot of divisions, and one of the reasons why this has been challenging for those of us who have been watching from the outside is that there are many communities – minority communities within Syria – who are, frankly, saying the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.”

Clinton later indicated that these minorities support the regime, not because they agree with what is happening, but because they fear what [regime] might come next. She stressed that Washington is encouraging the opposition to build a unified agenda for the people in order to guarantee [political] participation for all people in Syria, from the Sunnis to the Alawites, the Druze to the Kurds, to the Christians.

Washington’s state of concern also reflects the concern of their Israeli ally which has not hidden its own position, namely that it would prefer the Damascus regime to remain in power and does not want to see political change that might end the state of calm that has prevailed along the Syrian – Israeli border for decades. We must not forget the famous message that Rami Makhlouf – Syrian businessman and Bashar al-Assad’s cousin – conveyed to Israel and the US during an interview with the New York Times at the beginning of the Syrian crisis. In this interview, he linked the survival of the al-Assad regime to Israel’s national security, saying “if there is no stability here [in Lebanon], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel…and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.” This clear message embarrassed the Damascus regime, because it exposed what was hidden and revealed what is not said in public. Yet, perhaps Makhlouf needn’t have issued such a statement because Israel had already taken a stance supporting the stability of the al-Assad regime, and even expressed this position overtly in political statements.

What is interesting is that concern regarding the al-Assad regime’s survival has placed Iran in the same camp as Israel and Washington, even if their motives and objectives are different. Iran is moving publicly and privately to rescue its strategic ally to the extent that it considers this support a “religious duty”, which is a religious expression that places the Syrian crisis in the midst of the prevailing sectarian unrest in the region. It is no secret that Tehran, in coordination with its allies in the region, particularly Hezbollah and some political parties and extremists in Iraq, is acting to back the Syrian regime because it does not want to lose a strategic ally to the Sunnis in the region, a group that Tehran has overtly accused of seeking to undermine the alliance between Iran and Syria.

All of this may mean that the crisis in Syria will be a protracted one, for the protestors have shown a determination to continue with their uprising, despite the severe repression that they are facing, whilst the regime has failed – so far – to achieve its goals of putting an end to the protests. Because the Arabs, as is their custom, do not take up unified stances and are unable to take strong action to force the regime to end violence and torture, it is quite likely that the upcoming stage will witness further sanctions – and international and Arab actions – being taken against the Syrian regime in order to increase its isolation, in anticipation of internal developments taking place in Syria resulting in regime change, one way or another.