Syria: Three questionable suppositions |
Asharq Al-Awsat - 25 May, 2012
Author: Amir Taheri
Discussing Syria in Western capitals these days one is struck by a new discourse focused on three suppositions.
The first of these is that “nothing could be done” until after the US presidential election in six months’ time. Pundits tell you that, “totally focused” on his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama does not wish to be diverted by involvement in a distant imbroglio. Meanwhile, bogged down in its mess, Syria is unable to do much mischief.
The second supposition is that the Syrian opposition, divided and possibly infiltrated by elements of the regime, is in no position to cash its chips while President Bashar al- Assad is too weak to restore his authority.
Finally, the third supposition is that, given time, the mission led by Kofi Annan might put the current stalemate to best advantage. The NATO summit in Chicago built its position around that supposition.
While they might sound self-evident all three suppositions are open to question.
The first supposition assumes that the evolution of the Syrian crisis is almost exclusively dependent on American policy. In other words, if the US moves things would also move; if not we shall have stalemate.
There is no doubt that the US, as a major power, could play a crucial role in shaping the direction of almost international crisis. However, it would be foolish to overestimate the importance of external factors in any given situation.
The subtext of the first supposition is the role that the United States played in toppling two despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, even in those cases the US was the external factor.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime collapsed because it had determined domestic enemies who were ready to fight it to the finish. Kabul was captured by the Northern Alliance, not NATO forces. In Iraq, the determining internal factor was the decision of a majority of Iraqis, including the Iraqi armed forces, not to fight for Saddam Hussein. This is why General Tommy Franks was able to lead his relatively small task force right into Baghdad in just three weeks.
As a Chinese proverb has it: “If you have an egg and apply heat to it you might get a chicken. But if you have a stone you won’t get a chicken from it with all the heat in the world.”
The Assad regime is doomed because of its inability to defuse a social and political time-bomb created by decades of oppression and corruption. In the past six decades, during which the US has been a “superpower”, lots of things have happened without Washington playing the lead role. The seizure of China by the Communists, the crumbling of European colonial empires, the emergence of more than 150 new nations, dozens of civil wars in every continent, and, last but not least, the fall of the Soviet Empire all were events produced by internal dynamics of societies concerned rather than any US initiative.
More recently, the Arab Spring, triggered by decades of despotism, took the US by surprise.
In many cases, to be sure, the US did play an important role, often on the right side of history. In some cases, however, the US tried to prevent the events or limit their dimensions, often without success.
In the second supposition, pointing to divisions within the Syrian opposition, we face confusion between two realities. The Syrian popular revolt against Assad is one reality while the formal opposition, mostly based abroad, is quite another.
The two are certainly related in joint efforts to get rid of Assad. But they are not identical. In any case, in a revolutionary context, diverse opposition forces are never formally united. Their only point of unity is their common desire to achieve change.
The third supposition is based on a diplomatic mirage. It assumes that the Assad regime is still capable of triggering a mechanism for reform thus making a peaceful transition possible.
However, anyone familiar with Syria under the Baath would know that no such mechanism for reform ever existed. Assad cannot accept anything less than total control while a majority of his opponents are not prepared to offer him even a side-chair in a future set-up.
Assad is now trying to export his violence and terror to neighbouring countries, notably Lebanon in the hope of creating a broader regional catastrophe.
Catastrophe, of course, is not a single event like an earthquake; it could happen in many sequences and in slow motion.
Though not yet a revolution, what we have in Syria is certainly a revolutionary situation with a grammar of its own. It will find or lose momentum with or without outside intervention. The unity or disunity of the exile opposition would impact this revolt but will not be a determining factor in its eventual success or failure.
The Syrian revolt is remarkable for the breadth and depth of the popular base it seems to have. With every day that passes one learns of new towns and villages where the revolt has spread. In none of the other “Arab Spring” countries did the popular uprising enjoy such a degree of support.
The Assad regime as it was at the end of 2010 no longer exists in the sense that it has lost what little legitimacy it had. Its mask torn asunder, the regime now operates as a killing machine. What is at issue is how to break that killing machine as fast as possible. As always, the initiative rests with the Syrian people themselves. If they remain determined to win, they will.