On the crisis in Syria

In recent weeks the military crackdown by the Assad regime in Syria has become a refugee problem for neighbouring Turkey, and a media nightmare for everyone else. Because the Assad regime has denied access by foreign journalists, the international media has largely had to rely on opposition, defector and refugee accounts of what has been happening inside Syria – and especially within the Syrian villages close to the 700 kilometre-long border with Turkey.

By comparison, there has been relatively little coverage of the regional significance of the Assad regime’s fate. For years, the best Western source of information on Syria has been the ‘Syria Comment’ website run by Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at University of Oklahoma. For a good initial overview of the current situation in Syria here’s a Landis interview from a few days ago with the Economist:

The Landis website has also linked to this excellent Asia Times article on Syria written by the former Indian career diplomat M K Bhadrakumar. The relevant passage pinpoints the US vs Russia backdrop for the international attempts to isolate Damascus, diplomatically.

This arm-wrestling has now culminated in the US sending a warship to joint US/Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea. Here’s Bhadrakhumar’s take on this test of strength, and on Russia’s fears about losing its naval base in Syria should the Assad regime happen to fall – which is one reason why Russia is studiously blocking any further UN measures to sanction Syria. The US, for its part, has several powerful reasons for seeking regime change in Damascus:

First and foremost, a regime change in Syria has become absolutely critical for breaking Israel’s regional isolation. The US-Israeli hope is that the back of the Hezbollah can be broken only if the regime of Assad is overthrown in Damascus and the Syrian-Iranian alliance is ended. Again, a regime change in Syria will force the Hamas leadership to vacate Damascus. Hamas chief Khalid Meshaal has been living in Damascus under Assad’s protection for several years.

All in all, therefore, any movement on the Israel-Palestine peace process on Israeli terms will be possible only if the US and Israel crack the hard Syrian nut. Washington and Tel Aviv have been trying to persuade Russia to fall in line and accept “defeat” over Syria. But Moscow has stuck to its guns. And now by sending the warship to the Black Sea, US has signaled that it will make Russia pay a price for its obduracy and pretensions as a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern power.

Internally, is the Assad regime under serious threat? Clearly, there will be no outside military intervention along the lines that have occurred in Libya. The most realistic hope is that an economic blockade will eventually inspire a palace coup by another friendlier general, perhaps from among the same Alawite minority as the Assads. This would in effect, be a repeat of what happened in Egypt, where the Egyptian military finally concluded under US prompting that the Mubarak family’s dynastic ambitions had become more of a liability than an asset and thus removed them, under cover of the popular demonstrations that were occurring in the streets of Cairo, and other cities.

Secetarianism may also become a factor. The Alawites are a Shi’ite minority – they number only some 12 % of the Syrian population – and were trained and raised to prominence by the French rulers in the 1920s and 1930s, as a military weapon against the Sunni nationalists. The US will now be hoping to drive a wedge between the Assads and the same Sunni majority, whose business classes have gradually worked out a cosy relationship of mutual convenience over the years with the Assads, ever since the family took power in 1970. There have been claims that some clans among the Alawites have now distanced themselves from the regime – though both the reality and the modern significance of these kind of tribal endorsements has been disputed.

One drawback for the West is the hopeless disarray of the Syrian opposition groups. They pose no military threat, and little in the way of a coherent political alternative. As Landis says, the reality is that Syria before the Assads was a banana republic of revolving-door coups. Still, a weakened and internally fractious Syria without Bashar al-Assad would almost certainly be preferable to the US and to Israel – much more so than the current regime in Damascus, which gives aid to Hizbollah in Lebanon and has allied itself with Iran against the Saudi/Israeli/US convergence of interest.

If a palace coup does not occur, the situation could drag on miserably for years, with the sanctions hurting only the more impoverished citizens of the country. In that respect, we could be in for a repeat of the Iraq experience, where some 250,000 ordinary Iraqis have been estimated to have died during the 1990s thanks to the UN sanctions that were being enforced against Saddam’s regime – but which proved unable to end his rule. Famously, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that those deaths were justified. One hopes the UN would think again before taking similar action against Syria, no matter how unsavoury the Assad regime may be.


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