The Syrian Imbroglio Continues

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It’s almost two years since the Syrian people rose against the autocratic rule of Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite clan, representing only 11% of this Sunni majority country of around 25 million people, has ruled Syria since his father, Hafiz al-Assad, gained power through a coup in 1970. I was posted in Syria as Ambassador of Pakistan (1989-1991) and therefore can claim to have some knowledge of that country. Living and working in Syria and interacting with a highly cultured Syrian people, at least in the cosmopolitan cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, was both a delightful and fascinating experience. So like many others, I am very unhappy to see Syria descend into the chaos and horror of a fratricidal conflict, which has taken an estimated 40,000 lives. It is the civilian population which has suffered the most with at least 200,000 seeking refuge in the nearby countries of Turkey, Jordan, etc. Large swathes of the major towns of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Deraa have been attacked by the government forces to oust the rebels through aerial bombardment and artillery fire. The Western countries have largely engaged in hand-wringing and verbal condemnation of the brutal tactics employed by Assad, who does not seem to have much compunction in killing large numbers of his own people in the hope that somehow he will be able to cow down the opposition. This is not going to happen as the battle lines are firmly drawn. I believe that the opposition’s military gains are approaching a critical mass and that Assad’s days as President are numbered. The Western countries are putting pressure on Assad’s main backer, Russia, (since they do not have much clout with the other main backer, Iran) to abandon Assad so that a democratic government representing the different religious and ethnic groups in Syria, can be put in place. The Russians are dragging their heels for reasons which are difficult to fathom. Surely they can see the writing on the wall, but are still continuing with their obdurate support for a losing proposition. Perhaps they are afraid that the new government will be hostile to them for their invidious role in supplying political and military support to the autocratic Assad. The U.S. posture has been to tread cautiously. Thus, for the near future, a NATO-type intervention that had occurred in Libya to topple Qaddafi, can be ruled out. The recent recognition of a coalition of opposition leaders by the United States is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. Unless the United States and the other NATO countries become more proactive, Syria’s agony could continue indefinitely. The countries responsible for supporting a regime which has lost practically all legitimacy and credibility, will be blamed by posterity. These are principally Russia, China and Iran for, without their support the tottering Assad edifice would probably have keeled over by now.

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