Saturday, 24 March 2012

Forget Plan 'B', They Need Plan 'A'

The ruthless Syrian regime may be losing the international public relations war. But it is slowly and viciously grinding down the remnants of opposition, and remains entrenched  in power.  It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Just as in Libya the forces of ‘good’ in the world were supposed to use their power and prestige to help the long-suffering Syrian people free themselves from the strangle-hold of a despotic regime. Instead, Syria is proving to be the place where the so-called Arab Spring could turn into the deep freeze of the Arab Winter.

Our friend Rainer Hermann, long-time Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is in frequent contact with all sides in the Syrian conflict and offers valuable insights into the problems there. Rainer speaks fluent Arabic, and his constant travels throughout the region and huge list of contacts give him a unique and valuable perspective on these developments.

The first problem facing the opposition groups is that the bulk of the Syrian army is remaining loyal to the regime. A few soldiers and a handful of officers have defected to the opposition, but so far the vast bulk of the military together with all the heavy weapons remain with the regime. The opposition is left with light weapons and dedicated volunteers who are no match for a trained military force willing to resort to any degree of barbarity to stay in power. There is no quarter in this battle, no compromise possible where the leadership of the military is closely allied with the minority Alawite regime. The military leadership realizes its future would be grim indeed if the majority Sunni part of the population were to assume control.

The second major problem is that the opposition is bitterly divided. Various groups and a myriad of splinter groups often cannot even sit in the same room, let alone decide on a common strategy. Some want a stronger military presence, others demand negotiations with the regime. Many of the local coordinating councils detest the national council. Many resent those who spend all their time talking with foreign diplomats instead of fighting on the ground. Essentially, there is no common platform, and the opposition has been unable to convince the ‘silent majority’ to join the struggle. Many of the Syrian bourgeois middle class are remaining on the sidelines unconvinced that the opposition has a clear plan, let alone a decent chance to succeed and install a regime any better than the one they already have.

“Forget Plan B. There’s no Plan A,” one frustrated Syrian friend said.

This critical mass of people may not like the Al-Assad regime, but they like the confusion that followed uprisings in Egypt and Libya even less. We have Christian Arab friends in London who are very nervous about the potential for fundamental Sunni control of Syria.

“Up to now, the Christians in Syria have had a decent time. The churches and monasteries are open. No one hassles them. Look at Egypt now. See how the Copts are being mistreated. The Western countries have no idea what will follow the overthrow of Al-Assad. They have to be very careful,” our neighbour said.

The third major problem faced by the opposition is the complete paralysis of the international community. Remember Bosnia? This is just as bad. There has been a torrent of words, but so far precious little action. The Al-Assad regime can hide behind its Russian and Chinese protectors and ignore the pious protests from the European Union, the United States, and the toothless United Nations. A few U.S. senators have called for military intervention, but fortunately cooler heads have prevailed. One hopes the Americans have learned the dangers of ‘regime change’ forced from the outside.

Turkey is in a very difficult position. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey. The Turkish government has turned against its one-time friend Bashar Al-Assad and issues daily verbal thunderbolts against him. There is a lot of loose talk about the Turkish army setting up a buffer zone inside Syrian to protect civilians caught in the middle. I doubt very much that Turkey would ever act on its own. The geopolitical/economic balances in this part of the world are extremely delicate. Turkey’s large Kurdish population is already restive, and the militant wing of fighters in the PKK shows no sign of giving up its attacks. However unlikely, the last thing Turkey needs is for Syria to start helping the Turkish Kurds in retaliation for any incursion by the Turkish military. Then there is Iran, also a strong supporter of the Al-Assad regime. Turkish – Iranian relations are already tense, and any overt move against Syria would only heighten those tensions.

The hard, cruel fact is that right now there is no obvious solution. The only thing that is clear at this point is that any sustainable solution is going to have to come from within Syria itself. Outside intervention on behalf of the opposition is just not going to happen. If the opposition could unite and develop a common platform for a non-Assad Syria the hitherto ‘silent majority’ might just become a little less silent and lend its voice to the opposition. But that, unfortunately, is a very big ‘if’.

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