CANBERRA — Syria is tearing itself apart. The minority Allawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad remains determined to crush the opposition, which despises the regime so much it will not bow out. The Kofi Annan peace plan has seemingly failed, and the international community, or more specifically the United Nations Security Council, has found itself in a situation where it cannot do more than express revulsion and impose bearable sanctions on Damascus. What is the way out?
For all its faults, the Assad regime still commands the support of not only most of the Alawites, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, and the smaller Christian and Druz minorities, but also a well-equipped military and Baath Party. It also has major logistical support from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as political protection from Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, and China. The Russian and Chinese stand has paralyzed the UN Security Council from adopting firm measures under the responsibility to protect principle as it did with Libya last year.
Meanwhile, the opposition consists of numerous divided and disparate groups, representing largely the Sunnis, about 70 percent of Syria’s population, and this lack of cohesion favors Damascus. The regime is therefore well positioned to fight and hang on to power for some time to come, regardless of how much damage it causes the Syrian people.
The conflict is increasingly shaping up to be a sectarian civil war, with the regime acting as brutally as possible – a development that has made Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians under occupation look more humane. The result will be not only devastating to Syria, with potential for a spillover effect on Syria’s neighbors, especially Lebanon, but also harmful to a resolution on the Palestinian problem.
The West has known about the brutal nature of the Syrian regime for a long time. It started when Bashar al-Assad‘s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1971 and established his sectarian Allawite family rule and gained international support with a mixture of force and political tact. He positioned himself and Syria as a pivotal player in the context of conflict with Israel and the cold war.
On the home front, Hafiz al-Assad suppressed all opposition, even putting down a Sunni uprising in Hama by killing up to 20,000 people in 1982. On the external front, he flirted with Russia and forged a strategic partnership with Iran; maintained conflict with Israel in pursuit of reclaiming the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967; and helped the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to become a major military and political force in Lebanon in opposition to Israel and its supporters. While paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, the elder Assad exploited the issue to present himself and Syria as the heart of Arab nationalism.
All this strategizing drew the attention of the West. Just in the same way the US and its allies courted the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, intermittently for years, they accorded similar treatment to the senior Assad. President George H.W. Bush was happy to meet with him in Damascus to enlist his support for reversing the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in return for accepting the presence of 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon.
Assad died in 2000, but his legacy lingers on with his son, Bashar, crowned as president by his father’s old guard. At first, it looked as if the younger, better-educated Assad would promote reform, but he could not grow out of his father’s legacy and sectarian allegiance. Eventually, he assumed the political mantle of his father, and major powers treated him similarly to his father. He acted on the same issues that his father had relied on to keep power and attracted an undeserved degree of respectability abroad. It comes as no surprise that he and his cartel have turned out to be as brutal as his father and his cronies.
Syria faces no quick solution to its crisis now. The Assad regime has lost most of its domestic and international legitimacy, but a dictatorial ruler always operates on the principle that he and his loyalists are indispensable and everyone else around them dispensable. The only choice left is to raise the stakes of the conflict for the Assad regime to prompt it to deal with the opposition and negotiate for a settlement under UN auspices. Since the UN Security Council cannot move decisively, it is time for willing Arab states, with help from Turkey, to provide more material support for the opposition forces so they can achieve more weight in the conflict.
This plan, of course, carries the risk of the conflict widening and deepening, but this is already happening with little or no protection for most of the population against the regime’s offensives. Once a settlement is reached, no one should underestimate the difficulty in managing the transition. That is where the role of the UN, backed by regional actors, the US and its allies, will come in. These players should have enough experience from the Iraq and Afghan wars not to repeat past mistakes.