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Published: June 2012
Since the wave of demonstrations and popular uprisings known as the ‘Arab Spring’ began in December 2010, one regime after another has fallen, most notably in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Pundits have been forthcoming in painting pictures of democratic change sweeping over the Arab world, bringing hope to disenfranchised and disillusioned citizens that a better world is possible. The conflict in Libya ended in UN intervention before Muammar Gaddafi was finally toppled. The chain of events in Syria has however turned out quite differently since the demonstrations started last spring. At the confluence of revolutionary movements and great power politics, Ruben Angell argues that the real losers are the Syrian people.
Storm over Damascus. Photo: Ömer Ünlü
THE NARRATIVE of the story should be well known to most readers. Hasan Ali Akleh poured gasoline on himself and then set himself on fire on the 26th of January last year, much in the same fashion the protester in Tunisia did the month before. What then ensued appeared to be demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but according to news outlets like Al-Jazeera these were not successful due to al-Assad’s relative popularity. Whatever popularity al-Assad enjoyed quickly deteriorated in the following months, as security forces and the Syrian army put down the demonstrations, and went as far as shooting protestors. Several cities were besieged by the Syrian army, including Baniyas, Homs and Hama. Over the summer, armed opposition to the regime unified under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council. What appears to be a civil war continues without any real prospect of a solution, as the ceasefire agreement of April this year has proven unsuccessful.
It is not the first time that Syrian civilians have been caught in the crossfire of opposing factions vying for power. Hama had been the center of Islamist opposition since the 1960s. In 1981, less than a year after the Syrian government had passed a law making membership in the Muslim Brotherhood an offense punishable by death, in a show of resoluteness, the government sent troops to Hama, indiscriminately killing children and adults. In 1982, the Syrian government engaged in an outright war against the Brotherhood, with journalists and analysts estimating a death toll of 10,000-20,000 in February alone. One could argue, as historian Eugene Rogan does in his book “The Arabs: A History”, that the ‘experiences of Islamist insurgents in Syria and Egypt have shown that these Arab states are too strong to be toppled by assassination or subversion’. This has of course changed in the aftermath of the Arab spring in North Africa, but what about Syria?
The Free Syria Movement, a many-headed beast.
Photo: The Mole
Russia has been President al-Assad’s staunchest ally. From the Russian perspective, this is a strategic move due to the Syrian port of Tartus which hosts the only Mediterranean naval base for the Black Sea Fleet. Furthermore, Russia is by far the largest arms supplier for the Syrian government armed forces, as well as a major trading partner. Stroitransgaz has the biggest Russian operation in Syria and is currently building a natural gas processing plant 200 kilometers east of Homs, as well as providing technical support for the Arab Gas Pipeline. Moscow has also strengthened its strategic position in Syria by facilitating a joint venture with the Syrian national oil company. No wonder then that Russia voted against the United Nations Security Council resolution which condemned al-Assad for the attack on civilians in Homs in February of this year, 30 years after his father was responsible for the massacre in Hama.
The problems faced when trying to assess the situation are multifaceted. One challenge is identifying exactly who the opposition is, as well as the now semi-recognized government-in-exile referred to as the Syrian National Council (SNC). The paramilitary forces of the Free Syrian Movement (FSA) are mainly made up of defectors and conscripts of the Syrian army. The SNC is composed of several factions with different aims and purposes. It includes intellectuals and promoters of a modern and democratic state, Assyrian and Kurdish dissidents, and, interestingly enough, several members of the exiled Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Drawing parallels between them and the opposition that eventually brought down the Gaddafi regime in Libya may prove fruitless. Whereas Gaddafi found himself increasingly isolated, with no major power support or strategic assets shielding him, the situation for al-Assad is quite different.
In Moscow, discussions have revolved around a possible solution to the conflict, known as the “Yemenite Variant”, in reference to the compromise brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council which enabled Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his vice-president. The concept of the proposed solution in Syria would follow similar lines, making it possible for al-Assad to step down while allowing the regime to maintain its position in a transitional phase of new elections and democratic rearrangements. A similar suggestion from the Arab League had, however, already been rejected by al-Assad, discarding it as an option for the immediate future. The two other options would seem to be the use of force to overthrow and essentially execute al-Assad, as happened to Gadaffi in Libya, or imprisonment and trial as is the case with Mubarak in Egypt.
Whatever the outcome of the conflict, the international community needs to balance the rhetoric of support for the legitimate opposition to al-Assad’s regime with the realities on the ground. A number of Western and Arab governments have joined the Friends of Syria Group, supporting the SNC and FSA in their struggle against the regime. It remains to be seen, however, if any outside military support will come to their aid, as was the case in Libya. Russia would have to tacitly accept such a scenario for the other powers to avoid an escalation of the conflict, and yet this scenario still leaves little hope for the civilians caught in the middle of the crossfire. It would be prudent to remember that civilian atrocities are still the result of armed clashes between both sides in Libya, as major power struggles between the factions of the TNC continue. The only thing which seems to be certain is that civilians in Syria will face more bloodshed while waiting for a spring that has yet to break the iron grip of a violent winter.