A recent lecture in London highlighted the perils of any sort of foreign intervention, military or even humanitarian, in the meat-grinder of current day Syria. With the violence and bloodshed mounting and spilling over into Lebanon, with the flood of refugees pouring into Turkey and Jordan the pressure is increasing to ‘do something.’ But what, exactly? What assistance? To whom should it go? How should it be delivered? And, most important of all, what would be the consequences of any external assistance?
One of the biggest issues dividing the Syrian opposition is this question of external assistance. Is it good, bad, or even necessary? To briefly summarize the current line-up: Russia and Iran are actively supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The opposition, meanwhile, receives overt support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Other countries like Turkey are supporting the opposition, but so far have stopped short of providing heavy weapons or soldiers.
The United States, for its part, still bears the scars from its lethal aid to the mujahideen fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The U.S. is also concerned about the alleged stockpiles of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime falling into the hands of jihadist elements that have infiltrated the Syrian opposition forces.
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And then there are people like Dr. Haitham Manna, the Paris-based spokesman for an opposition group called the National Committee for Democratic Change who pleaded with an audience at the London School of Economics to work for a non-violent solution that avoided taking any external assistance. According to Dr. Manna any external assistance would merely distort what started as a non-violent anti-regime protest against the arrest of 15 school children in Dar’a in March 2011. He maintains that such external assistance would merely make the country hostage to people supplying the assistance. He said the original goal of protestors was to create a non-sectarian, democratic Syria, and that it is naïve to think that this could be accomplished merely by changing its political alliances or resorting to violence.
|Dr. Haitham Manna|
In an earlier interview with Jadaliyya he said Syria “will become prisoners to international aid and those non-democratic forces in the Gulf States who wish that there will be a fiscal crisis.” He was referring to the support that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have given to the opposition forces in Syria. He also questioned how much would be gained in the long term by swapping Russian support for American support.
This position puts him at squarely odds with other opposition groups, namely the Syrian National Council, that want ‘friendly’ countries to mount a Libyan-style attack and force a military solution to the civil war. The situation is further complicated by sectarian divisions among the regime’s opponents. Some want a bloody Sunni-Alawite confrontation, some want a jihadist Islamic state, others simply want a democratic state controlled by and for Syrians.
Dr. Manna kept stressing the point that Syria is not Libya, and that it has several different ethnic and religious groups. “Any solution that does not include all the different groups in Syria is bound to fail,” he told the largely sceptical audience.
“If we take Arab nationalism too far we marginalize the non-Arabs such as the Kurds and others. If we take Islamic ideology too far then we do away with approximately 40% of the people. We have no right to do any of this,” he said in the Jadaliyya interview.
The tone of the questions from the audience in London indicated that Dr. Manna’s plea for non-violence was falling on rocky ground; that it was too late to wind the clock back to the days of peaceful demonstrations of unarmed civilians.
“What do you expect me to do when someone comes to my home with a gun and threatens me and my family? Meekly give in?” one person asked bitterly. Others pointed out that Dr. Manna is based in Paris and questioned his right to give advice to people fighting for their lives every day.
He bravely responded by noting that his own brother was killed by the regime and poignantly asked the questioners “How has the situation improved since we began fighting?” He has a point, but at this stage not too many people are listening.
So what is the end-game to the bloody stalemate in Syria? The opposition forces do not seem to have the heavy weapons required to defeat the well-armed forces of the regime, and the regime seems incapable of finishing off the rebels. Some say there is no solution as long as Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique remain in power or even in the country. Others, like Dr.Manna, insist that any solution ignoring the legitimate fears of the minority Alawite regime and its supporters would be short-lived.
‘Compromise’ is not a frequently used word in the Middle East. But just possibly in this situation a compromise worked out by the Syrian people themselves and supported by the contending external forces may be the only way to keep the country from splitting into bitterly opposed mini-states established on ethnic and religious grounds. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps, but it is difficult to see any other result that doesn’t increase the instability of an already unstable region.