The key question is: When, how, and whether President Basher al-Assad will relinquish office? He is turning 47 on September 11. He has ruled Syria since 2000. He was not elected into office through a democratic process. He was selected by his father who ruled for three decades after capturing power through a coup. He has no divine right to rule.
If Assad goes, does it mean that there will be democracy? Not necessarily. History shows with painful clarity that it is not possible to replace dictatorship or autocracy immediately with democracy. The French Revolution begat Napoleon. The Russian Revolution gave rise to Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat followed by Stalin’s. Even the latter’s demise did not usher in democracy.
Kofi Annan’s six-point plan that he advanced as the joint envoy of UN and the Arab League had no chance whatsoever of succeeding. He was chasing a mirage. Neither the international community nor Syria wants a negotiated settlement. Assad does not want to step down as part of a negotiated settlement. His adversaries want him to step down even before they sit down to talk. It follows that unless he can defeat his adversaries, the only possible way to end the killing is for Assad to step down under compulsion. There is no practical way he can defeat them. Let us send our good wishes to Annan’s successor, the veteran Lakhdar Brahimi. It needs boundless optimism to conclude that he will succeed.
Over 40 officials, some senior, including a Prime Minister, have defected. So far Assad’s army and the security set-up, both dominated by his minority Alawite sect, have stood by him, by and large. The question is: For how long? It is beyond the means of the regime to put down the uprising. The rebels claim to hold 60% of Aleppo, close to the Turkish border. Their claim may or may not be accurate, but it is clear that they hold substantial territory. The regime has resorted to aerial bombing, so far without decisive result. The rebels, mainly the Free Syrian Army, have reportedly resorted to using captured prisoners as suicide bombers. The capital Damascus, the oldest inhabited city in history, is a battle field.
President Obama has drawn a “red line.” He stated that there would be “enormous consequences” if chemical agents are moved or used. The background is that last month, Assad’s government announced that it had chemical weapons and that it would use them against “external aggression.” Intelligence agencies of Turkey have claimed that Syria has 1000 tonnes of chemical agents, including sarin and mustard gas, positioned in fifty towns and villages. The claim may or may not be true. But it is reasonably clear that Syria has such agents, and the intention of the reference to “external aggression” was to threaten anyone planning such aggression. One cannot rule out the use of chemical agents by a desperate regime facing defeat. However, the NATO has no plans to send in troops.
The principal supporters of Assad are Russia, China, and Iran. The first two used their veto three times at the Security Council. Why are Russia and China supporting Assad? They are allergic to any international intervention to topple dictators friendly to them. Russia has access to the Tartus port. It has made a lot of money by supplying arms to Syria. China has a visceral antipathy to popular movements against established dictatorships. Russia, China and Iran want no intervention in Syria, no sanctions, and no threat of action under chapter VII of the UN Charter. They should know that if they oppose action at the Council, action will be taken outside the Council. That is precisely what’s happening. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been giving arms and money to the Free Syrian Army, while the U.S. and UK have been giving “non-lethal” support. There have been reports that special teams from the U.S. and UK have been training the anti-Assad forces in Turkey.
Turkey’s role is crucial, and over 70,000 Syrians have fled to the country. Turkey has said that it would not be able to take in more than 100,000 and that the UN should organize a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria across the border. Such a “safe zone” will be a ‘liberated zone’ and to prevent Assad from bombing the area it will be necessary to declare a “no-fly zone.” Will the U.S. and others declare a “no –fly zone” and enforce it? What will Russia and China do in retaliation? They will not send their air force to Syria, but they might fortify Syria’s air defence system. Suppose the U.S. or Israel was to disable the information network of Syria with the result that utilities such as water, telephones, and electricity, are disrupted?
Turkey’s role is crucial for another reason. As it has married Islam with modernity and democracy with singular success, it can be an example for others. Turkey’s high ambitions are reflected in the words of its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: “Turkey would henceforth lead the movement for change in the Middle East. We will continue to be the leader of this wave…There is a new Middle East. We will be its owner, leader, and servant.”
There are, however, constraints for Turkey to realize its ambitions. Turkey can be associated with the past of Ottoman domination of the region. Assad has already played his ‘Kurdish card’ against Turkey. He withdrew forces from the north-east border region and the Kurds have taken over local administration. Will that turn out to be a mini ‘Kurdistan’ attracting the Kurds in Turkey with whom the state has been waging a war for decades? Ankara is deeply worried about the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. It has sent in its armed forces to Iraq without seeking permission from Baghdad as part of ‘hot pursuit.’
It is useful to put the Kurdish issue in context. The most famous Kurd is Saladin, who captured Jerusalem in 1187 during the Crusades. When the Ottoman Empire fell, the Kurds sought independence. The Treaty of Sevres of 1920, that ended the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, specifically contained a provision for the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan. But it was never implemented. The Kurds found themselves in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. None of these states want an independent Kurdistan. They have used Kurds as pawns from time to time in their games against each other. In this regard, Turkey is particularly vulnerable. It is a sad commentary on Turkey’s search for modernity that it has so far failed to come to a Modus Vivendi with the Kurds – a failure that casts a shadow over its ambitions to join the European Union.
The support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for regime change in Syria is slightly intriguing. They are not democracies and it is not in their interest to see a strong democratic wave in the Muslim world. Their main interest is to weaken Iran by toppling Assad. They want to see a Sunni dominated regime in Syria, which is friendly to them and not close to Iran.
We do not know what might happen in Syria. We can be sure, unfortunately, that more human beings will be killed. Assad will have to go. But when? After how many more deaths?
It is sad and sobering to recall that the United Nations was established to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime brought untold sorrow to mankind.”
Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, and is currently the President of AFPRO (Action For Food Production) and IGSSS (Indo-Global Social Service Society).
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