September 30, 2012
Slow Death of Damascus
by Bunn Nagara@http://www.thestar.com.my
THE Syrian conflict has morphed into a painful and dangerous war of attrition for five reasons, none of them the official one of scale.
The purported reason so frequently cited by international media and diplomats, that of 30,000 dead and counting, and 1.5 million refugees, is a result of the spiralling conflict and not a cause of it.
The first of the actual reasons is the continually escalating conflict with no apparent or conceivable limits. If a country can be said to bleed to death, Syria tragically is at gravest risk of doing so.
The second reason is that all the parties to the conflict are actively engaged in the escalation, with none of them having any interest in stopping or even mitigating it.
The third is that external parties with an interest in Syria continue to fuel the flames. Iraq and Iran are said to be contributing in different ways to the Syrian government’s armed might, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are known to be providing material or logistical aid to the rebels.
This already has the makings of a Shi’ite-Sunni conflict on the verge of spreading well beyond Syria. The regional rivalry between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is poised to multiply exponentially.
Fourth, whereas a stronger Syrian military can swiftly dispatch a weak opposition and end the agony of war, the situation is muddied and muddled with inputs from abroad. The opposition is well-armed with a Free Syrian Army supported by Egypt, Turkey, the Arab League and the odd combination of Islamist militant groups and Western powers.
The result is a nation teetering on the brink of destruction while being torn apart from within and abroad. The conflict is simply not allowed to resolve itself forthwith either militarily or diplomatically, while the life of the nation is steadily drained away.
Among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China refused to add to the conflict by approving military intervention. The US, Britain and France as the other three condemn this inaction without considering how their own support for forcible intervention can bring peace.
The fifth reason for Syria becoming a potential time bomb in the region is a deepening split between even the self-proclaimed champions of peace. Where it is already difficult enough to resolve the conflict through inclusive talks, the rift between different sets of exclusive dialogues can only make things worse.
The US-led Friends of Syria group that comprises the US, the EU and the Arab League specifically excludes Iran, despite Teheran’s prominent role in Syria. Western officials baulk at any thought of including Iran without realising that talks have to be more open and less restricted and partisan.
And as might be expected, the Friends of Syria has failed to show any promise in resolving or even limiting the conflict. Despite Egypt not sharing Iran’s perspective of Syria, it has invited Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join a contact group to work for peace.
At the same time, Iran is working with an even broader focus in proposing a 12-nation group to end the conflict. In contrast, the Friends of Syria looks dated and inadequate.
Much the same can be said of the UN role, or what remains of it. UN and Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (picture right with Kofi Annan and UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki Moon) can only go through the motions of diplomacy, saying little and doing even less.
In political science, a protracted stalemate is a condition frozen into inconsequential irrelevance. In the messier world of government, it is a painful and unsustainable paralysis deriving from mutual destruction between fellow citizens.
Such a situation like Syria’s is not static but dynamic in the most chaotic way possible. It actively grinds, wears down and pulverizes both sides without offering any hope of better days ahead.
Brahimi sees it differently, of course, but then he is an interested party. He conceded that the Syrian situation was “extremely bad and getting worse,” yet added that things would get better later.
That supposed light at the end of the tunnel could be a fully loaded oncoming freight train. Actually, the deadly chaos which is the Syrian nightmare, is a lot worse because it continues to worsen.
Brahimi gave no basis for predicting a better future for Syria and Syrians. That means the deliverance he purports to foresee is what must follow the destruction of the country: when nothing can possibly get worse, anything that happens next is bound to be better.
That may seem like cynicism, but the seasoned diplomat did not mean to be cynical. The implication, therefore, is that through all the muck in the mire, there is not going to be any “awakening” from the Syrian nightmare.
Syria’s current realities say it plainly enough. Rag-tag bands of violent militants with questionable ideologies, armed by dubious foreign sources, are battling the state with deadly force under cover of a presumed moral legitimacy.
The battle cry is against authoritarianism, but Syrians have lived with that for some 40 years of Assad family rule without requiring a violent uprising to save anyone. But in the current regime-change mentality, past gains are easily forgotten.
After coming into office first as Prime Minister and then elected as President, Hafez al-Assad (Assad senior) provided Syria with political stability and development.
He steered clear of religious extremism by separating religion from politics, ensured women enjoyed equal rights, and even amended the Constitution to allow non-Muslims to become President.
Far from being anti-Western, he tried to make peace with Israel and even joined the US-led alliance against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990.
Among the enemies the elder Assad made was the Muslim Brotherhood, which forced him to retreat from the Constitutional change. Then when the Brotherhood staged an armed revolt in 1982, he hit them hard by killing thousands.
His son and successor Bashar al-Assad lacks his political pedigree and policy adaptability, and that has proven to be a policy setback. Promised liberal reforms largely remained undelivered, the few moves towards change were slow, and eventually Damascus was overtaken and overwhelmed by events.
The resulting irregularities have produced singular anomalies. Brahimi, for example, is simultaneously supposed to represent a neutral UN and a partisan Arab League.
He substituted for Kofi Annan, who quit after a ceasefire call went unheeded, Western powers withheld support, and a plan to involve Iran was opposed.
For Syria, Damascus had implemented all six of Annan’s recommendations which were not honoured by the rebel side. Western news agencies lately reported intensified fighting in Aleppo and Homs, but the situation has so deteriorated that violence has actually escalated throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Qatar has signaled the likely introduction of no-fly zones, the strategy against Libya that also meant direct military intervention from abroad. That again could be making matters worse in the guise of making them better.
If moral legitimacy derives from honesty and consistency rather than hypocrisy and double standards, Qatar and Saudi Arabia would also be supporting the rebels in Bahrain.
But that would be a slippery slope for them, since the regime-change mindset could extend further afield to other Gulf kingdoms like themselves. Awakenings can be contagious.