As the Arab Spring consigns another dynastic autocrat to the annals of history, the focus shifts to Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to cling to power.
For decades, Syria has been ruled by the Alawite minority, backed by Iran since the early 1980s, who now face opposition from the dominant Sunni community in the country and their Saudi sponsors. The Arab League and Western powers, eager to displace the belligerent Shia government in Iran, have imposed sanctions on Syria making for a volatile situation.
Former Indian Ambassador to Syria Rajendra Abhyankar visited Syria at the Syrian government’s invitation to determine the veracity of perception. Ambassador Abhyankar spoke to Gateway House’s Samyukta Lakshman about the developments in Syria, the impact on India-Syria relations and the future of the region.
1. In your column in Haaretz, you explain that international coverage of President Assad’s regime is heavily biased. Having visited Damascus, Hama and other cities in Syria in August, what are the ground realities?
Syria is facing a relentless media war from Western and Arab media networks, particularly Al Arabia [based in Saudi Arabia] and Al Jazeera [based in Qatar]. The law and order situation is under control and [President Bashar al-Assad’s] regime does not look like it is about to collapse as predicted by some observers.
There is still support for the regime – about 60% of the population. Yet, the need for urgent political reform is imperative and the regime will have to open the country politically, economically and socially.
Under an overlay of calm, there is a palpable sense of tension in the places we visited. Amongst the people we met no one is ready to open up on the situation. However most people were clear that they do not want Syria to turn into another Libya. The cohesion of the community and its largely secular and tolerant ethos are important factors which inform this view.
2. President Assad’s government claims it is fighting foreign enemies. Who are these ‘enemies’ within Syria and outside?
The people we met were emphatic that there is an agenda for destabilising the country, being pursued by Syria’s Arab neighbours, Israel, the United States and Western powers. The protests are therefore seen not entirely against the Assad family or even the regime, but provoked by external actors.
This could mean that any punitive action against the Syrian regime has the potential to galvanise the people in its favour. Our interlocutors told us that money and arms are being brought in to assist the protesters from Jisr-ash-Sougour [which borders Turkey], Daráa [which borders Jordan], Deir az-Zor [which borders Iraq] and Homs [which borders Lebanon].
This explains why the disturbances started in these border cities initially and only then spread to Hama and the poorer suburbs of Damascus [Duma and Harista].
3. According to David Ignatius in The Washington Post, the Saudis have been pumping money to the Sunni protesters while Iran has been propping up President Assads’s Shia-Alawite government. How do you see sectarianism playing out in Syria?
According to our interlocutors, regional and international players aim first to delink Syria from Iran, thus cutting the cord with Hezbollah, and second to promote Turkey [now an overtly Sunni power] against the Shia phalanx of Iran and Iraq.
In Syria, Turkey is understood to have sent demarches to the Syrian government to legitimise the Muslim Brotherhood [Ikhwan Muslimeen] – banned after the Hama operations in 1982 – and suggested mediatory dialogue with the opposition in Istanbul to relieve the situation. The Syrian government has firmly rejected these attempts, all the while praising the Turkish government for its efforts.
4. How has the Arab Spring affected the Palestinian peace process?
Any developments in Syria would affect the entire region, including Lebanon, and would harm the chances of liberating Palestine. Should the regime continue to ignore the desires of the people, its longevity is not assured. Consequently, relations with Iran could be cut as well as the umbilical cord that Syria has to Hezbollah and its continuing war against Israel.
In the context of the volatile situation in the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was stated that a ‘foreign hand’ is very much present in the ongoing disturbances.
Syria remains crucial for Middle East peace – it is important to remember that Syria is still the calmest area in the eastern Mediterranean region and the Syrians have maintained a quiet border with Israel. It is with good reason that they say, ‘there is no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria.’
5. How is India reacting to the upheaval in Syria? How do you think New Delhi can assist in stabilising the region to make the countries of West Asia and North Africa better homes for our expatriates and better allies?
India’s immediate concern on the outbreak of protests in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt was to get our expatriates out of harm’s way – which was very successful. We have not felt the need to evacuate our citizens in Syria yet. If a situation arises, I have no doubt that India will not be found wanting in its response.
On the international level, we are a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This places an onerous responsibility on us. We are coordinating our response and efforts with like-minded countries of the IBSA and the BRICS group which are also in the UNSC.
Our decision to abstain on UNSC Resolution 1973, which sanctioned the NATO operations in Libya, was well thought out as was our moderating the UNSC presidential statement on Syria issued on August 3.
We would like to see stability and good governance restored [in the region] are more than happy to help in building democratic institutions. But it has to be at the request of the new dispensations in these countries. We are averse to imposing anything on these countries.
Given our close and historic relations with these countries, I believe that regular consultation with the U.S. on our assessment of Syria and the region would be useful.
6. How do you think the situation will resolve itself in Syria?
After nearly four months of protests, the [Assad] regime has realised that the people have genuine grievances which it can no longer sweep under the carpet.
The regime is susceptible to outside pressures — religious, strategic and energy resources-related — from its neighbours including Israel. Its foreign policy, which has Iran as an important pillar with close linkages in Lebanon and with Hezbollah and Hamas, increases its vulnerability. Yet the regime continues to be wedded to its concept of secularism and is unlikely to give any quarter to the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, it will not be easily able to withstand Saudi financial leverage. The situation is complex in the e
xtreme. The Assad regime needs time to implement its reform package, but the clock is ticking for it.
Rajendra Abhyankar, former diplomat, was Ambassador to Turkey from 1996 to 1998 and High Commissioner to Cyprus from 1987 to 1990. He teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Samyukta Lakshman is a Researcher at Gateway House.
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