Syrian tragedy

“The Security Council cannot go about imposing solutions in crisis situations in various countries of the world,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, as the UN began discussing what to do about the Syrian crisis a week ago.

“The Security Council cannot go about imposing solutions in crisis situations in various countries of the world,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, as the UN began discussing what to do about the Syrian crisis a week ago.

He needn’t worry. Even as Syria drifts inexorably towards a catastrophic civil war, nobody else is willing to put troops into the country, so how are they going to impose anything?

You can’t blame them for their reluctance, because Syria isn’t Libya. It is a big country with a powerful army, the core of which will remain loyal to the Assad regime right down to the last ditch. A good 30 per cent of the civilian population will join them in the ditch: the Alawites (Shia), the Christians, and some of the Kurds and Druze, all of whom fear that the overthrow of the regime will put the Sunni Arab majority in the driving seat.

That’s where they should be, of course — they are at more than 70 per cent of the population — but when revolutions triumphed recently in Tunisia and Egypt, the subsequent elections brought explicitly Islamic parties to parties. There’s no evidence that those parties will actually abuse the civil rights of minorities, but given the increasingly sectarian nature of the struggle in Syria, the minorities there are frightened by the prospect of Sunni power.

So the minorities will stick with President Bashar al-Assad no matter what his forces do to the Sunnis, and there are enough of them, given the regime’s virtual monopoly of heavy weapons, to hold out against either domestic insurgency or foreign military intervention for a long time. That’s why there won’t be any foreign military intervention.

But it’s getting worse in Syria. Several suburbs of Damascus itself have now fallen into rebel hands, and Assad’s forces are shelling neighbourhoods only five km from the centre of the city. Since last March, about 5,400 people have been killed by the regime’s military and paramilitary troops, and the 200 observers sent by the Arab League in December didn’t even slow the rate of killing.

In desperation, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission last week and called for Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy within two weeks. That deputy would then be obliged to form a unity government with the opposition within two months. In other words, it demanded the end of the regime.

In fact, the Arab League has even drafted a joint resolution with Britain, France and Germany that threatens unspecified further measures against the Syrian regime if Assad does not step aside. Nabil al-Arabi, the head of the Arab League, is in New York this week to present it to the Security Council in person.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Syrian regime has already rejected the Arab League’s demand, insisting that what’s really happening in Syria is attacks by “armed terrorist gangs” (i.e. al-Qaida) backed by Israel and the United States. Ridiculous, but a lot of Alawites and Christians actually believe it.

The worse news is that Russia will veto the resolution before the Security Council anyway. Assad is Moscow’s only real ally in the Middle East, and Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is on the Syrian coast. Bad Moscow — but the truth is that foreign military intervention would probably not stop the killing at this point unless it was truly massive. That wouldn’t happen even with a dozen Security Council resolutions.

The worst news of all is that this probably means that Syria is heading down into the same kind of hell that Lebanon went through in its 15-year civil war (1975-90).

It has just gone on too long. The Syrian protests began as a brave attempt to emulate the non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad regime would kill people, of course, but if the protesters stood fast and refused to kill back, ultimately the regime’s support would just drain away. Non-violence was doubly important in the Syrian case, because if it were a violent revolution various minorities would feel gravely threatened.

Alas, that non-violent strategy has foundered on the rock of Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. Sunni deserters from the army started fighting back, and all the other communities took fright.

Now it’s a civil war in which the regime has the heavy weapons but the Sunni Arabs have the numbers.

Syria is just as complex a society as Lebanon, although we can still hope that the war does not go on as long. And it’s entirely possible that the Assad regime, whose senior ranks are mostly drawn from the Alawite minority (only 10 per cent of the population), has deliberately chosen civil war. Better that than surrender power and expose the Alawites to the vengeance they fear from all those whom they have ruled for the past 40 years.

This does not mean that the “Arab spring” was a mistake, or even that it is over. Few other Arab countries have as divided a population or as ruthless a regime as Syria. But it is still a great tragedy.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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