(…) The Iranian card - Syria has a privileged position thanks to its relationship with Iran which has endured for 30 years despite their differing views on peace with Israel: Tehran rejects Israel in principle, while Damascus would accept it on condition the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, were restored to Syria.
After the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005, and the hasty withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Syria’s Ba’athist regime went through a period of isolation that Bashar al-Assad finally managed to end. By withstanding pressure from the US administration (which wanted to remove him), supporting Hizbullah during Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and supporting Hamas in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09, he bolstered his regime’s image as a centre of resistance. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, impressed by his firm stance, even suspended their opposition, temporarily.
The Ba’athist regime believed Syria’s position within the axis of resistance meant it was safe from the revolutionary movement that engulfed the region in 2011. But that was to reduce the conflict over Syria to its geopolitical dimension, as a confrontation between the imperialist and anti-imperialist camps, and to underestimate the changes brought about by the Arab revolutions and the aspirations of the Syrians. The regime miscalculated, because Syria has the same flaws as others in the region: an authoritarian and arbitrary government, a greedy elite, neoliberal policies that impoverish its people and an inability to respond to the aspirations of the young, who are more numerous and better educated than their elders. The government’s refusal to listen to their demands and the extraordinary brutality of the repression has caused the violence to escalate, and encouraged some protestors to take up arms, even though the majority support non-violence (silmiyya), as in Egypt. The risk of the uprising taking a sectarian turn has increased — something the regime has exploited to frighten the Christians and Alawites (3).
A changing opposition - Syria’s opposition — or parts of it — are incapable of offering any serious guarantees for the future. Some of their earlier supporters have even turned away from the opposition. The Kurds, who were among the first to protest (to get national identity cards, which they had been denied), are now keeping their distance, shocked by the refusal of the Syrian National Council (SNC) to recognise their rights (4). The government has re-launched the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which it had already used in its military confrontations with Turkey in the 1990s and which remains popular among Syria’s Kurds.
There is a new split at the heart of the SNC, led by people such as Haytham al-Maleh and Kamal al-Labwani, former political prisoners who reject the SNC’s foreign alignment. Ammar Qurabi, the former head of Syria’s National Organisation for Human Rights and leader of the National Current for Change, has accused the SNC of marginalising Alawite and Turkmen activists (5). Syrian Christians, who have watched many Christians flee Iraq, are worried by the rise of the jihadists and the anti-Christian and anti-Alawite slogans chanted by protestors.
The SNC has many opponents, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which rejects foreign military intervention. It has gone through a series of internal splits, and is now dominated by the Islamists, though it is fronted by a few liberal figures. Its dependence on western countries and Gulf monarchies has gone down badly.
(…) Assessing the options - Should we do nothing? There are other options than military intervention. Economic pressure on Syria has already made some middle-class government supporters reconsider, and this could be increased, as long as it targeted the leaders and not the population. The first Arab League observer missions had difficulties but managed to limit the violence. (Saudi Arabia had them withdrawn and buried their report because it did not correspond to the simplistic media coverage.) It would be a positive development if the observers were to return, and extend their mission. We should involve Russia and China in negotiations with a transitional government. Some commentators question the idea of negotiation with such a murderous regime, but in Latin America transition to democracy was achieved by granting soldiers amnesty, even if it is a matter of regret that they exploited this for 30 years.
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique.
The above article was translated by Stephanie Irvine.