Syria is heading for a bloody sectarian civil war. The mutual kidnappings, torture, beheadings and displacement of populations taking place between the Sunni and Alawi communities in the central city of Homs -- often described as “the capital of the revolution” -- send a fearsome signal of what might be in store for the rest of the country.
To avert this descent into hell must surely be the immediate priority of Arab leaders and the international community.
The Iraqi example next door is there for all to see. The Anglo-American invasion destroyed a major Arab country. The country’s institutions and infrastructure were shattered; sectarian demons were released, triggering a civil war. Hundreds of thousands died and millions were displaced from their homes or forced to flee abroad. The country was dismembered as the Kurds established their own semi-independent statelet.
Syria needs the intervention of a high-powered, neutral, contact group to stop the killing on both sides. There must be a pause in which tempers are cooled, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are halted, and a climate created in which a real dialogue can take place and real reforms agreed and implemented. The aim must be a peaceful transition to a different sort of regime, with effective guarantees for all sides.
The Arab states and the Western powers are ill-suited for this task. The latter are not trusted. Too many of them have taken sides. The United States, in particular, has been discredited by its blind support for Israel. Rather than bringing peace, Washington’s spectacular failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or indeed its own 32-year conflict with Iran, has prepared the ground for future wars.
Who then could form the necessary contact group? My choice would be the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China -- countries with real economic and political clout and a strong interest in the region. Brazil, for example, has close historical ties with Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Millions of Brazilians have grandparents who emigrated from these countries.
The present Syrian regime has been one of the most durable in the Middle East, lasting for almost half a century, ever since the Ba‘th party seized power in 1963. The Asads -- father and son -- have ruled since 1970. However, the current crisis poses a particular danger to the regime because, almost for the first time, it faces a conjunction of internal and external challenges.
The last big internal challenge occurred in 1977-1982, when an uprising by the Muslim Brothers threatened to topple the regime. It was crushed at Hama with the loss of perhaps 10,000 lives -- a brutal repression which continues to resonate to this day, as Islamists dream of revenge.
External challenges to Syria have been far more frequent. They include Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at expelling Syrian influence as well as the PLO, and drawing Lebanon into Israel’s orbit; the 1998 crisis when Syria faced the possibility of a two-front war with Turkey and Israel, and was only resolved when Syria expelled the Kurdish PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan; then came the biggest challenge of all: the 2003 invasion of Iraq, conceived and driven by America’s pro-Israeli neo-conservatives. Had it been successful, Syria would undoubtedly have been the next target.
When Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was murdered in 2005, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon and the Syrian regime threatened with overthrow by U.S. President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. In 2006 Israel’s attacked Lebanon to destroy Syria’s ally, Hizbullah; it then attacked Gaza in 2008-9 to destroy another Syrian ally, Hamas.
The mentality of the Syrian regime -- the mind of President Bashar al-Asad himself -- has been shaped by these recurrent life-threatening crises. They were largely responsible for making the regime what it is: authoritarian, defensive, brutal, neglectful of political reforms, over-anxious to exercise control over the citizenry, the media, the universities, the economy, over every aspect of society.
The continuing threat from Israel and its American patron led to the creation of the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis -- a defensive alliance which emerged as the main obstacle to Israeli-American regional hegemony. Not surprisingly, Israel and the United States want the axis destroyed. Syria is now under extreme pressure, but Iran, too, has for years faced systematic demonization, intimidation and sanctions. Determined to protect its own nuclear monopoly, Israel is attempting to push America into war against Iran -- and if not war then still more sanctions -- while Hizbullah, the third member of the axis, continues to be treated like a terrorist organisation because it managed to expel Israel from Lebanon after an 18 year occupation.
The Syrian regime’s instinct has been to interpret the current uprising as one more conspiracy. Taken by surprise, its immediate response was brutal repression: the use of live fire from the very beginning at Dar‘a in mid-March. No doubt, President Bashar had imagined that his nationalist stance gave him immunity from popular uprisings. But, faced by the escalating crisis, his leadership has been wanting; his speeches and promises of reform were late and unconvincing. His failure to seize the initiative with radical proposals showed a lack of political imagination. The killings have fatally undermined his legitimacy.
Who are the revolutionaries and what do they want? They are the rural poor, who have suffered from drought and government neglect; the urban poor and small businessmen, crushed by corrupt, crony capitalists close to the centre of power; and the armies of unemployed youth. Like many Arab countries, Syria suffers from a population explosion. In 1965 (when I wrote my first book about Syria) there were 4m Syrians; today there are 24m. With a fertility rate of 3.26, the population could reach 46m within 20 years. These figures are catastrophic. Economic growth simply cannot keep pace.
The revolutionaries want jobs, good governance, a fair distribution of the country’s resources, an end to corruption, arbitrary arrest and police brutality. They want dignity and respect. They have had no experience of democracy and have little knowledge of what it means. About 40% of the population are under 14, and only 3% are over 65 -- with faint memories of a pre-Ba‘th, pre-Asad rule, which in any event was not all that democratic.
Although isolated, sanctioned and internationally condemned, the regime still has several assets. So long as the army and security services remain loyal, it will be difficult for the opposition to topple it. The more the opposition takes to arms, the more the regime will feel justified in crushing it. Meanwhile, there is no appetite in the West for military intervention in Syria. Russia and China will protect it from any UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. The opposition remains divided, while the regime still enjoys the support of a large slice of the middle and upper classes in the big cities, of minorities such as Alawis, Christians and Druze, of large numbers of civil servants, and also no doubt of a silent majority, fearful of suffering the dreadful fate of Iraq.
As the death toll rises, the thirst for revenge becomes sharper and the sectarian divide deeper. Civil war looms and, with it, the urgent need for measures to avert it.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global