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6 July 2012, Gateway House

The unique tragedy of Syria

Simultaneous efforts to resolve the problem in Syria remain stymied even as more and more high level meetings and consultations take place. The more countries treat the situation as a proxy for political differences, the more it creates the conditions for a wider conflagration with an unpredictable outcome.

Director, Gateway House

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At this moment only one thing about Syria is sure: its fate is being decided by non-Syrians. The re-ordering of the Middle East is continuing apace, subordinating local awakenings to regional and global interests.

As the violence within Syria has escalated the situation around it has grown more brittle, especially after the shooting down of a Turkish aircraft by Syrian anti-aircraft battery on June 22nd. Turkey has heightened military activity and now claims to be fighting fires set off by the Syrian armed forces along its southern border to prevent military defections and refugee outflows from Syria.

Simultaneously efforts to resolve the problem through UN bodies remain stymied even as more and more high level meetings and consultations take place. Despite the Putin-Obama face-to-face on June 18th, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s June-end visit to Moscow and subsequent meets in Geneva and Paris, the Russian and American positions on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are yet to be reconciled. All the members of the UN Security Council and Arab neighbours, plus Turkey but minus Iran, have signed on to a transition process, but each interprets it in its own way. For instance, the Americans want Assad out immediately, whereas the Russians may be prepared for a more gradual change.

Meanwhile, a number of myths have grown around the situation in Syria which obfuscates an understanding of whether it is like or different from other Arab awakening countries. Deconstructing the differences may provide pointers to how the situation within Syria will evolve and what kind of influence the external actors may exert.

Firstly the uprising in Syria was not spontaneous as happened in Tunisia or Egypt. This is not to argue that President Assad was a popular ‘dictator,’ only that he was not hated as intensely as Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt or Gaddafi in Libya.

Nor has social media played the sort of mobilising and popularising role attributed to it in Egypt and Tunisia.

The capital Damascus remained peaceful for at least six months after the uprisings began in Derra in March 2011, unlike Tunis or Cairo which were the focus of largely young urban protesters.

Once the violence in Syria began to intensify and spread across this most multi-ethnic of Arab countries, it assumed an intensity which recalled the horrors of the Algerian civil war that claimed over a 100,000 victims in the 1990s. This is quite unlike the approximately 35 dead in Tunisia, 900 in Egypt and even the estimated few hundred to a few thousand killed by all sides in Libya. A death toll of over 10,000 in a year with daily reports of scores and sometimes over a hundred killed in single incidents recalls the tragic litany of Algerian small towns and villages. Only Yemen may come close in the number of killed and displaced in Syria. This is largely due to the long-running Houthi revolt in the Northwest along the border with Saudi Arabia, attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and even some tribal fighting.  Additionally the victims – many of whom are women and children – of alleged close-encounter killings by shadowy militias like Shabiha in Syria, recall the atrocities attributed to equally shadowy outfits in Algeria.

The armed forces commanded by members of Assad’s Alawite tribe remain largely loyal to him although some defections, including at the level of Generals, are claimed by Turkey and Jordan. This is unlike Egypt where the armed forces took over or Libya where the forces splintered between those from Benghazi and Gaddafi loyalists.

Even today it is not clear who the opposition in Syria are, who they are led by and what they are fighting for – because demands for the ouster of Assad are articulated most forcefully by the West. In Libya it was clear that the rebels from Benghazi would inherit the earth. Similarly in Egypt the Army quickly claimed the uprising. Only Tunisia appears to have experienced a largely civilian-led process.  Amidst signs of a Yemen-like transition of retaining the Ba’ath Party structure with more acceptable names at the top, American spokespersons from Secretary Clinton down are determined to oust Assad while remaining vague on who would replace him.

Already there are reports of sectarian attacks, unsurprising in a country ruled by a minority Shia Alawite sect over a Sunni majority population, a large Christian minority and numerous small denominations and ethnicities. This diversity is precisely the basis of continuing support for Assad – they have seen the fate of minorities in Libya and Egypt, and fear a similar fate for themselves. But the presence of the many minorities is also likely to be the source of continuing bloodletting after the current, secular regime is ousted. Religion, rather than ethnicity, divides Egyptians and tribal affiliations are significant in Libya and Yemen. But Syria could, over time, end up with a reverse of the Iraq-type Sunni dominance over the minority Shia, and a slow outflow of the Christian community. Or worse, it may just experience the 15-year-long Lebanon-type civil war.

Local and regional rivalries are more at play over Syria as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey compete for influence over the regime and its motley challengers. This is quite different from Libya, Egypt or Tunisia, where none of the neighbours interfered. In Yemen, Saleh’s ouster was engineered by the U.S. and bordering Saudi Arabia in the guise of Arab League plans. Turkey is also apprehensive, and rightly, about what the Assad regime which had earlier hosted the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, could do to stir up its own ever-restive Kurdish minority.

The massive participation of Saudi and Qatari money in arming and supporting the rebels will also ensure a Wahabiisation of the practice of Islam. This will be reinforced by the more openly Islamic governance brought into Turkey by the ruling Justice and Development Party since Turkey not only hosts the interminably fractious coalition of Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian National Council, in Istanbul, but also provides safe haven to the rebels inside its southern border with Syria.

Although Saudi Arabia and Qatar were active players alongside the UK-France-led NATO bombing of Libya, great power rivalries were more muted as Russia, China and other non-permanent members of the UN Security council (including India) had voted alongside the West. The misuse by the West of Resolution 1703 intended to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to achieve regime change, has frozen UN processes in ways reminiscent of the Cold War. This, even as NATO, despite Turkish invocation of its charter, has made clear its disinclination to engage in active hostilities. Moreover Russia has real strategic interests in its only remaining Arab ally: a naval  base at Tartus on the Mediteranean, arms sales worth over half a billion dollars, and more. It is not clear how enduring China’s solidarity with Russia will be, as like every other country its interest lies only in undisturbed oil supplies from the region.

Still the failure of the Kofi Annan ceasefire and its transmutation into a National Unity plan and now a transition succession plan for Assad, keeps the UN in as a factor. Despite denials by Russia that it could offer Assad exile, few doubt that his days are numbered. The haggling at the moment is on the details of the Yemen-type succession of whom else from the family and the regime goes and who stays.

So far Israel has followed its original policy of “strategic silence” publicly. Considering its location, including a land border with Syria, its continuing occupation of the Golan Heights, its nervousness with regard to an already erupting Lebanon, and when its comfortable relationship with the old Egyptian regime – underwritten by American aid – could erode, Israel must be engaged in continuous backroom consultations with the Americans. It recently even hosted Russian President Putin. According to some analyists it was Israel’s outsized security demands that kept the Arabs locked up for the last 30 years since the Camp David Accords. It will not now remain uninvolved if the outcome in Syria looks chaotic without any recognized successor government on the anvil. Whatever else happens the Israelis are unlikely to yield up the Golan Heights soon…..if ever.

Until now, the West has been able to keep Iran out of the UN confabulations over the future of Syria on grounds that it is part of the problem. Indeed Iran is as important, if not more so, than Russia to the continued survival of the Assad regime since both provide financial support and weapons supplies. The outcome of Iran’s exclusion will probably complicate a resolution by augmenting the Assad regime’s will to resist, deepen the Shia-Sunni divide in Syria and encourage more reckless behavior by its protégé, Hamas, in the Gaza strip. Equally Iran and Syria can stir up the ethnic cauldron in Lebanon, drawing Israel back in.

The more the West treats the situation as a proxy for its differences with Iran, the more it creates the conditions for a wider conflagration with an unpredictable outcome for Israeli security. Five months before a U.S. Presidential contest, it is too much to expect the Washington to try anything new such as working with Iran to resolve both the problems in Syria and Afghanistan.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. 

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