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Retreat, Victory and Suicide   

Al Hayat - 28 February, 2012
Author: Ghassan Charbel

Observers sense that Syria is headed for more calamities. The regime is no longer able to retreat in the wake of the damage done to its image, the ruling party, the army, the security services and its economy. Nor is the opposition able to retreat with thousands of victims having perished, and with many cities and villages devastated. Both sides consider retreat to be suicide. The opposition can offer more sacrifices, and the regime more cruelties. Perhaps Syria itself will collapse before either party admits its defeat. This would mean Syria may be drawn into a protracted civil war which will inevitably be a regional civil war.

It is clear that change in Syria, if it happens, will be more significant than the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It will be a momentous change at the regional level. It will be a change that affects the size of the Iranian role, the Russian role and the balance of power in the Arab world. It will also impact the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Sunni-Shiite rift, and the freedom of movement for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The change will also leave its mark on the fragile situation in Iraq, and this is perhaps why the conflict in Syria has turned into the forerunner of a major confrontation.

There are those who believe that the current situation in Syria is the result of a series of mistakes or lost opportunities that can be summed up as follows:

- The Damascus spring at the beginning of the last decade was a message demanding President Bashar al-Assad to rein in oppression and interference by the ruling party and the security services in people’s lives. Back then, the President had the popularity that allowed him to make breakthroughs. However, the web made of the security services and the ruling party rushed to warn against the danger of the return of Islamists, and squandered an opportunity wherein the opposition was not demanding more than reforms under the roof of stability and the regime.

- On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Damascus and Tehran agreed to work together to thwart the invasion by all means. Thus, Syria opened its borders to the ‘Mujahideen’ wishing to cross to Iraq to fight the Americans. Now, Syria is suffering the repercussions of that role.

- The Syrian authorities did not learn the lesson from the deterioration that afflicted Sunni-Shiite relations, as a result of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the execution of Saddam Hussein, and the manner and timing of the execution.

- Following the assassination of Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and following the war of July 2006, it seemed that the balance in the Iranian-Syrian relations was tipped in favor of Tehran, giving pundits the impression that Syria had become hostage to Iranian decisions. This impression was then further reinforced with the return of Nuri al-Maliki to office, and the ouster of Saad Hariri from his office as prime minister.

- The Syrian regime came to believe for some time that the Syrian-Qatari-Turkish triangle can replace the Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian triangle that President Hafez al-Assad was keen not to undercut, despite differences and disagreements.

- The Syrian authorities dealt with the reengagement of Syria pursued by Arab and international sides, with Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and French efforts, as though it were an acknowledgement of its role and its choices. It therefore refused to absorb the fact that this reengagement practically required Syria to at least not completely identify with Iranian policies in the region.

- The Syrian authorities spent most of their energies on foreign battles, believing that the policy of resistance offers them immunity against any unrest. The regime in Syria did not pay attention to the fact that the fruits of economic openness had not spread beyond some of Damascus and Aleppo, and into the countryside which only grew poorer, and that therefore, the role of the ruling party had increasingly waned in the regions that once constituted its popular base. Nor did the regime pay heed to a new generation that the information revolution equipped with abilities to communicate and criticize, and demand participation or change.

The regime could have taken advantage of the incidents in Daraa to drop the eighth article of the Constitution, and form a government of national unity headed by a trusted figure from outside the ruling party. But it is now too late for that opportunity.

The inability to retreat portends further calamities. There are some who fear that Syria itself will collapse before any of the two parties is defeated. Indeed, the dream of a knockout victory may be nothing but a large stride on the path of destruction and suicide.
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