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Defeatism cannot be allowed to overcome Syria

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Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

“Today our revolution enters its toughest stages and the cruelty of the regime against our people is proven limitless.”

For all the issues that the Egyptian revolution has yet to resolve, Egyptians did not pen the above words. Representatives of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria did, and even as Egyptians have continued to be invigorated and energised for their own political struggles, Syrians are dying for theirs.

Not in hundreds, or even thousands, but tens of thousands. The ongoing catastrophe means hundreds of thousands of refugees and prisoners; millions internally displaced; billions of dollars wasted in the destruction of infrastructure; and the crippling of the Syrian economy.

It is a difficult situation, to be sure. The difficulty does not arise from considering what a good outcome would be for the people of Syria: in fact, on that, things could not be clearer. The departure of the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad and the transition to a government that respected the fundamental rights of all the Syrian people; on that level, things could not be clearer. The question, of course, is how to get to that outcome.

The complications could not be more complex. The uprising in Syria did not have the support of the majority of the Syrian people when it began, but the reaction of the regime against the slightest dissent turned large swathes of the population against it. Almost two years later, it is hard to find more than a minority of people who would support this government, after all the blood that has been spilt. But what is also very true is that many who might otherwise support the revolution wholeheartedly, fear what might come if the government comes crashing down.

For many, those fears have been swept to one side; fears of what might happen, overcome by fears of what actually is happening at the hands of the Baathist regime. But outside Syria, many are still wringing their hands, confused as to what they should now do.

Syria is not Libya. The rebels in Syria were not successful early on in the same way that they were in Libya. There was no equivalent to Benghazi, where the rebels took control of an identifiable geographic space and were supported by the local population. While many opposition activists have been arguing for an intervention of some sort, what intervention would that be? From which parties, and to where in Syria precisely? Would it be the Turks? Not likely; not at the moment. Public opinion in Turkey is dead set against intervening and becoming embroiled in what is turning into an ugly civil war between the regime and the opposition.

Would it be the United States? Perhaps there might be movement on that score in the coming months, after the new elections are settled in the US? At the moment, though, reports indicate that the administration is actually trying to slow down the transfer of weapons to Syrian rebels, out of fears that those weapons may fall into the wrong hands.

Those ‘wrong hands’ were not there a year and a half ago when this began, but Al-Assad’s warnings that this was a ‘radical jihadist terrorist uprising’ has become a partially self-fulfilling prophecy. Radical Islamists have indeed gone to Syria, particularly in the last few months, where they see this as a clear-cut war against a tyrant, on behalf of innocent Muslims. They take with them, however, a message that does not bode well for the Alawite community of Syria, that offshoot of Shi’a Islam that Al-Assad and his coterie generally originate from. Indeed, Syrian opposition activists have been arguing that not only does this extremism exist, but that it exists due to the inaction of the international community.

Of course, when people argue against ‘intervention’, it needs to be admitted that foreign intervention has already taken place and from day one. The military and economic aid to the Baathist regime from Russia and Iran cannot be described as otherwise. The international community’s inaction is partly due to the Chinese and Russian vetoes at the United Nations security council, who feel they were cheated somewhat over the NATO intervention into Libya.

The situation remains dire and complex. But there are three things that could not be clearer. There can be no reconciliation with the top figures of Baathist regime; the downfall of this government cannot be deemed to be an optional extra. Its continued oppression of the Syrian people is unsustainable and must end. It would be preferable for that to end by peaceful means, but it seems clear that the Baathist regime would sooner destroy Syria before allowing that to happen.

The second: Syrian opposition activists have been clear that the representation of the forces in support of the uprising must be, indeed, representative. It does not bode well that a new representational body is being born in Qatar, midwived by foreign powers, but it does appear, at present at least, that this body might be able to genuinely represent all sectors of the opposition. If it does not, then something else must emerge; a body that will be answerable to the Syrian people and be able to count on their support. Within that body, all Syrian communities must be clearly and manifestly involved. That includes religious, cultural and ethnic minorities, including the Alawites.

Which leads to the third and final aspect of any next phase: the realisation that an intervention of some sort into Syria is necessary for two very simple reasons: the success of the revolution and the rescue of the Alawite community.

The permanent rule of Al-Assad is, it seems, unthinkable. Eventually, one way or another, he goes. Perhaps it will be due to the Turkish-Syrian border becoming unstable and Turkey being forced to intervene or perhaps it will be because a NATO force will militarily intervene if the causalities increase much more; who knows? But at some point, Al-Assad will have to come down. The further in the future that it happens, the more certain it becomes that the Alawite community becomes subjected to a series of revenge attacks and reprisals. The sooner this conflict comes to an end, the easier it will be to ensure the survival of the Alawite community, who do not bear communal blame for the crimes of it’s most infamous member.

People have died as part of the Arab awakening all around the Arab world, but the price has been dearest in Syria. The price will continue to increase as long as this uprising is forced to continue, but that price can be reduced, and the suffering of the Syrian people be minimised. But only if the international community shakes off its paralysis of defeatism and respects the dignity, the sacrifice and the struggle of the people of Syria.

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. A fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.” 

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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