There are two tales about the crisis in Syria. In one, the vast majority of Syrians have risen up against the brutality of a criminal dictatorship. The government of Bashar al Assad is on the ropes, isolated regionally and internationally, and only holding on because Russia and China vetoed United Nations intervention. Secretary to State Hillary Clinton describes Assad as “a war criminal,” and President Barak Obama called him a “dead man walking.”
In the other, a sinister alliance of feudal Arab monarchies, the U.S. and its European allies, and al-Qaeda mujahedeen are cynically using the issue of democracy to overthrow a government most Syrians support, turn secular Syria into an Islamic stronghold, and transform Damascus into a loyal ally of Washington and Saudi Arabia against Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Like most stories, there is truth and fiction in both versions, but separating myth from reality is desperately important, because Syria sits at the strategic heart of the Middle East. Getting it wrong could topple dominoes from Cairo to Ankara, from Beirut to Teheran. There is no question but that last March’s demonstrations were a spontaneous reaction to the Syrian government’s arrest and torture of some school children in Deraa. What is more, that the corruption of the Assad family—they dominate the army, the security forces, and much of the telecommunications, banking and construction industry, coupled with the suffocating and brutal security forces, underlies the anger that fuels the uprising.
But is also true that outside players—specifically the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S., as well as Sunni extremist organizations—all have irons in the fire. Indeed, there is the profound irony that, while the GCC condemns Syria for oppressing its citizens, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are crushing homegrown democratic movements in their own countries. Or that Washington should be on the same page as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.
And while there is no denying the brutality of the Assad regime, or that some 7,500 to 8,000 Syrians have died over the past year, Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza—Operation Cast Lead—killed a greater percentage of Palestinians per capita. When countries in the region tried to stop the Gaza War, it was the U.S. who blocked any UN action. In the Middle East, double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course.
The Syrian crisis is not a simple “good guys vs. bad guys,” democrats vs. a dictator, with the overwhelming majority confronting an entrenched, thuggish elite. First, while the current uprising represents a substantial number of Syrians, the Assad regime has domestic support. As Jonathan Steele of The Guardian (UK) points out, a recent YouGov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates and funded by Qatar found that, while a majority of non-Syrian Arabs wanted Assad to resign, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain. The poll was hardly a ringing endorsement of Assad—half of that 55 percent wanted free elections—but it reflects the fact that most Syrians fear a civil war. That is hardly a surprise.
The U.S. invasion and subsequent civil war in Iraq flooded Syria with millions of refugees and terrible tales of murder, torture, and sectarian bloodshed. And Syrians had a front row seat for Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. A Syrian dissident, Salim Kheirbek, told The New Yorker “No more than thirty percent of the people are involved in the resistance. The other 70 percent, if not actually with the regime, are silent, because it is not convincing to them, and especially after what happened in Iraq and Libya. These people want reforms, but not at any price.” While the recent referendum on reforming the Syrian constitution was widely dismissed by the U.S., Europe and the GCC, it appears that close to 60 percent of the voters turned out to overwhelmingly endorse the proposals.
Part of the Assad regime’s support comes from minority communities, in particular Christians and Alawites, who, make up 10 percent and 12 percent respectively, of Syria’s 24 million people. Alawites are a variety of Shiite, and the sect dominates the government. Sunnis make up the majority. Syria also has Kurdish, Druze, Armenian, Bedouin, and Turkomen communities. It is estimated that the country has 47 different religious and ethnic groups.
Alawites and Christians have reason for concern. As a recent New York Times story reported, demonstrators in Hom, one of the centers of the uprising, chanted “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave.” Al-Qaeda routinely describes Shiites as “a bone in Islam’s throat” and targets Shiite communities in Iraq and Pakistan. Nor is Syria isolated regionally or internationally. While the Arab League has condemned the Assad government, not everyone in the organization is on board. Damascus has support in Lebanon and Iraq, and neutrality from Jordan (Amman also remembers the chaos of the Iraq war). Algeria—North Africa’s big dog on the block—has been sharply critical of the League.
“The Arab League is no longer a league and it’s far from Arab,” Algerian State Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadam told Agence France Presse, “since it asks the Security Council to intervene against one of the [the League’s] founding members, and calls upon NATO to destroy the resources of Arab countries.”
On Feb. 15, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Assad to step down, but countries like Brazil and India, while deploring the violence, have made it clear they oppose anything involving military intervention or arming the main opposition force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Even Turkey, while calling for Assad’s resignation, has begun hedging its bets, and dropped any talk of creating “safe zones” along its border with Syria. Most countries fear that a Syrian civil war would spread to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and maybe into the Gulf states.
While the situation on the ground in Syria is hardly clear, the Syrian Army and security services appear to be sticking with Assad for now. If that continues, the rebels may keep the pot boiling, but, without outside intervention by NATO, it is unlikely they can overthrow the regime. On the other hand, after a year of fighting, Damascus has not succeeded in ending the rebellion. In short, it looks like a stalemate, in which case the current campaign to aid the rebels and force Syria’s president out is exactly the wrong strategy and one guaranteed to prolong the bloodshed.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and several U.S. senators have called for arming the FSA, a particularly bad idea because it is not at all clear who they are. There are persistent reports that the organization includes a goodly number of jihadists from Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. In any case, handing out weapons to people you don’t know, to fight people you don’t like is a formula for repeating the Afghanistan disaster. Second, the demand for regime change—and threats to charge Assad and those around him with war crimes—makes this a war to the death. Why would the Damascus government compromise if the end game is exile and prison?
The only solution to a stalemate is negotiations. The Russians have offered to host such talks, but so far the fractious Syrian National Council says it won’t talk until Assad resigns. The U.S. and the GCC have similar positions. However, talks will only work if both sides have an incentive to enter them, which means dropping the regime change demand, ending the sanctions, and shelving any talk of aiding the FSA. Maybe events have gone too far, but at this point that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Instead of condemning them, the Russians and the Chinese should be encouraged to negotiate a ceasefire and the opposition should take up the Russian’s offer to host talks with the Assad government. The recent referendum can serve as a jumping off point for re-writing the constitution. For this to happen, however, the regional players, the U.S., and the European Union will have to stop using Syria as a proxy battleground. As Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence Minister, told the New York Times, supporting the Syrian uprising was important because, “If the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.” For whom? Is this about freedom and democracy, or a calculated move on a regional chessboard?