Conflict in Syria: its international implications -June 1, 2012

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Anti-Assad regime demonstrations in Syria are now 14 months old but so far have failed to topple the dictator. Syria is a country in the Middle East which considers itself as the “beating heart” of the Middle East. Henry Kissinger once famously said: “There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and no peace without Syria”. Not unexpectedly, the minority Alawite regime- a branch of Shia persuasion- has used repression to quell the disturbances which have spread to many Syrian cities. Homs and Hama in central Syria are the epicenter of the anti-Assad revolt. The French, who ruled Syria after World War I when the victorious British and French essentially divided up the Middle East possessions of the Ottoman Empire, favored the minority Alawite group in Syria. Propping up and privileging minorities who would be loyal to the foreign power, has been a tactic of imperialism for many centuries. Incidentally the French did the same in Rwanda privileging the minority Tutsi tribe over the majority Hutus with horrendous results .In the well documented Rwandan conflict which erupted in the 1990’s, around 800,000 mostly Tutsis were massacred by revengeful Hutus.

What makes the future of Syria of special interest is because the United States on the one side supporting the Syrian rebels and Russia and Iran are on the other side supporting the faltering Assad clan, have locked horns. Russia which has a special relationship with Baathist Syria since the 1970’s and Iran which has forged strong links with fellow Shia Alawites have the most to lose if Bashar al Assad is toppled.

The United Nations had dispatched former Secretary General Kofi Annan a Nobel laureate, as a Special Envoy of the UN and the Arab League to try to halt the bloodletting in Syria which has claimed an estimated 14000 lives, mostly civilian, in the past 16 months. The Annan plan which called for a ceasefire and democratic elections to choose whether Assad stays or goes and the posting of 300 UN observers to help curb the violence, has failed to achieve its objectives. The UN Security Council is stymied from taking military action under Chapter 7 0f the UN Charter, by the opposition of Russia which so far is backing the murderous Assad regime. It might not be a comfortable position for Russia to be in, but the hard boiled Russians under Putin do not appear to care much for international sentiments. What they did to quell the Chechens in the Chechen war of the early 1990’s not least by practically leveling the Chechen capital Grozny, reflects a hardnosed repressive approach to irredentist opposition to the Russian federation.

The US is now reportedly considering some kind of military action against Assad, circumventing the paralyzed UN Security Council. This may not be easy to accomplish in an election year where the ever cautious President Obama – seeking reelection- is winding down the ill advised US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another factor which could possibly act as a brake on unilateral US or NATO action in Syria to degrade the Assad military apparatus, as happened in Milosevic’s Serbia a decade ago, is uncertainty about who will succeed Bashar al Assad. Syria is a majority Sunni country with around 70% of its population belonging to the Sunni persuasion; the rest are Shia Alawites at 12%, and smaller numbers of Christians, Druze and Ismailis. Among these multiethnic and multireligious groups, while a large number profess secular ideals, a substantial number nevertheless are followers of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. This group had revolted against Bashar’s father Hafez and had been suppressed brutally by the latter in 1982. The apprehension in the US and NATO circles is that elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama and Homs the principal insurgent cities, may gain power, which may not be friendly to Western interests. In my view, if we really subscribe to democratic ideals and not just pay lip service to them, we all must respect the will of the Syrian people in a fair and transparent election, regardless of which group assumes power.

Bashar al Assad may be tottering but he is still holding on. His future is largely if not wholly tied to calculations in Moscow. If Putin pulls the rug from under his feet, he will most probably join the other Arab dictators who have been deposed through popular uprisings. Overall, the international community should support and respect the popular will in Syria. While accurate statistics are difficult to come by in a situation which is increasingly morphing into a Sunni vs. Alawite civil war with ominous sectarian overtones, more and more Syrians want relief like their Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni compatriots from the suffocating embrace of Assad’s draconian police state. Sooner or later, he will have to be replaced. Observers have spoken about the “Yemeni option” quoting how Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen relinquished the Presidency under a negotiated arrangement in return for not being held accountable for the civilian killings which took place during his incumbency. A similar scenario occurring in Syria cannot be discounted and may represent a way out of the current stalemate.

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