By: Marwan Bishara
War-torn Syria risks its future being constructed around sectarian divisions rather than democratic principles.
You’ve listened. You’ve watched. You’ve witnessed the worst crime of the 21st century thus far.
A people bombed, murdered, purged, tortured, imprisoned and humiliated. The world watches from the sidelines, as a whole society is destroyed and tens of thousands of its finest people killed for daring to demand a life of dignity.
Clearly, “never again” is never really never again. The atrocities in Syria continue – again and again. It’s the ultimate complicity of silence.
The so-called international community’s commitment to the doctrine of R2P, or “responsbility to protect”, is more of a “right to peddle” unfulfilled promises. Alas, when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Palestine, the international community has proven to be neither international nor a community.
Syria’s four-decade-long dictatorship run amok has been permitted to slaughter its own citizens, wreak havoc in its country and forever stain the nation’s history in blood.
What began as largely peaceful protests against regime repression was soon turned by the regime into an open battlefield throughout the country as the opposition became armed and extremists joined the fight.
But the state’s belligerence has been to no avail: no force could deter the people or crush an idea whose time has come. Despite the excessive use of air–power against cities and the shelling of civilians, the Bashar al-Assad regime failed to quell the revolution or break its fighting spirit.
Turning the tide
The tide turned soon after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution in February, providing the regime with a green light to finish the job.
Iran and Hezbollah became heavily engaged alongside Assad, against what they termed the “fundamentalist terrorists” and their “imperial patrons”, the US and Israel.
As the forces of repression became better-equipped, more violent and sectarian, the opposition groups remained largely divided and poorly armed, despite their audacity and courage. Western promises of support continued to ring hollow.
The Assad regime redeployed two army divisions from the border with Israel to some of the major hotspots including Homs, and began a major offensive to improve its standing ahead of the scheduled Putin-Obama summit.
After receiving supplementary arms from Russia and Iran, military assistance from Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces and strategic support from the Maliki government in Iraq, the Assad regime regained the upper hand and won important battles on the ground – most notably al-Qusayr – a city almost razed to the ground before being taken over.
Duplicity and deceit
Unfettered by humanitarian concerns, Moscow stood behind the Syrian regime regardless of the consequences to its people.
Putin’s considerations were politically cynical and strategically narrow. The Russian president would do whatever it takes to block a repeat of the Libyan scenario in order to safeguard a client, and deny the West another foothold in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Europe continued to stutter about while the Obama administration quibbled and quarrelled about the need for humanitarian intervention in Syria – until, that is, the president made it clear he wasn’t about to get militarily involved where immediate national security interests aren’t threatened.
Obama, consumed by his domestic agenda, rejected the recommendations of most of his foreign policy team to act for fear of getting entangled in yet another foreign misadventure.
With the departure of Hillary Clinton, and the appointments of John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence, Obama made it clear that the US president was more interested in a political solution than a military one. What’s not so clear is whether the appointment of Susan Rice as national security advisor will change that.
The Obama administration seems to be wary of a repeat of the Afghanistan scenario, in which the disintegration of Syria, and the rise of radical Islamists who have been pouring into the country, could come back to haunt it.
Now that the US and Israel’s long-time nemesis is weakened, Washington has a vested interest to contain Syria, a country in a shambles, to ensure its troubles don’t spill over regionally or internationally.
Moscow and Tehran picked up the signals and moved quickly to prop up Assad and augment his (and their) leverage in any future talks with the opposition.
Their strategy worked. The subsequent Kerry-Lavrov attempt to find ways to implement the six-point plan that the US and Russia arrived at in Geneva last year has failed – the plan was rendered unrealistic and unworkable.
Assad wasn’t going to step down or aside. Intead, the Assad regime went on the offensive and became more entrenched than atany time over the last two years, while the opposition cried betrayal and refused to be complicit in turning the Geneva-2 meeting into a surrender ceremony.
The bottom line
Assad might continue to make tactical advances, but he will never again be able to legitimise his dictatorship. Winning the battles is nothing like winning the war, let alone defeating the people’s quest for freedom from repression. Nobody in their right mind could imagine that Assad would ever rule Syria again, regardless of the military victories.
Paradoxically, the more battles the regime wins using excessive violence, the more detested and less legitimate it becomes in the eyes of the Syrians and the world. Meanwhile, further deterioration leading to deeper sectarianism and extremism – and eventually full-fledged civil war – will lead to regional chaos as violence spills over to neighbouring and other countries.
As the human cost mounts and the images of ugly killings spread to every home, my guess is that something’s gotta give… But what.
With the Iranians (and perhaps the Russians) committed to arming Assad, and the West authorising the arming of the opposition, more arms will most probably flow into the country – leading to ever worse atrocities, increasingly along sectarian lines.
This means the violence continues to take the shape of civil war by proxy, and will eventually lead to the breakup of the Syrian society and perhaps even the state, and scar the country for generations.
In other words, delaying serious attempts to bring the opposition and elements of the regime to jointly transition to a new democratic political order without Assad will mean that, in the best-case scenario, Syria’s future will be constructed around sectarian divisions rather than democratic principles.
In other words, many thousands more dead and an open conflict for decades to come.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst of Al Jazeera English and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution.
This article was published first in Aljazeera.com
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