It is undeniable that President Bashar al-Asad’s Syrian regime has, over the past 15 months, made many mistakes and committed many crimes. An early example was the savage punishment of a dozen children who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011. This ugly incident was soon made far worse by the use of live fire against peaceful protesters.
Had the President raced to Daraa, apologised to the parents of the brutalised children, sacked the governor and severely disciplined his security services he would have been hailed as a hero. Instead, he adopted a policy of indiscriminate repression which has continued to this day. The large-scale killings have cast a dark shadow over his timid and long-delayed reforms, such as last month’s multi-party elections, which were held once the Constitution had been emended, putting an end -- at least in theory -- to the Ba‘th party’s half-century stranglehold over Syria’s political life.
The opposition has also made mistakes and been guilty of serious crimes. Its first mistake was to take up arms against the government. This may have been an understandable response to the regime’s repression, but it was also an act of political insanity since it provided the regime with the justification to crush any pocket of armed rebellion, wherever and whenever it might appear. The result was the tragedy of the Baba Amr quarter of Homs -- seized by the rebels, then destroyed by the regime’s heavy weapons -- a pattern repeated elsewhere.
There are now said to be about 100 armed rebel groups engaged in urban guerrilla warfare against the Syrian regime. Money is flowing in from Gulf States and from Syrian businessmen abroad, fuelling a brisk black market in weapons. Large numbers of jihadis, armed Islamic extremists, have crossed into Syria from neighbouring countries -- and also from Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria and Pakistan -- to swell the ranks of the fighters. Muslim clerics in several Arab countries are inciting young men to go to Syria to fight. Rebel groups conduct ambushes, attack check-points, destroy public property, kill government troops -- about 250 were killed in ten days in late May and early June. They also kidnap, rape and slaughter pro-regime civilians.
The regime’s strategy is to prevent armed rebels seizing and holding territory, even if this means shelling residential quarters when rebels hole up in them. The rebels’ strategy is to trigger a Western military intervention to stop the killing on humanitarian grounds (although no one mentions the large numbers of civilians killed by U.S. drones in half a dozen countries, including 18 women and children in Afghanistan alone last week.) The rebels know they cannot defeat the Syrian army without outside help. The recent massacres at the villages of Hula and al-Qubair have raised their hopes that the United States and its allies are now one step closer to military action.
But who was really responsible for the reported smashing of skulls and slitting of children’s throats at these two villages? The opposition puts the blame squarely on the regime’s shabbiha, a notorious armed militia made up largely of Alawis -- a view adopted uncritically by Western leaders and much of the Western press. The UN has been more cautious. After monitors reached al-Qubair, a spokeswoman for the UN supervision mission, Ms Sausan Ghosheh, said, “The circumstances surrounding the incident are not clear.”
Meanwhile, a very serious newspaper, the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Germany’s leading daily, has reported that the massacre was not carried out by the regime’s shabbiha after all but by anti-Assad Sunni militants. According to sources FAZ interviewed, the victims were almost exclusively from the Alawi and Shia communities. The gruesome events took place after rebel forces attacked three army-controlled roadblocks outside Hula. It was during the ensuing fire-fight of some 90 minutes that the massacre occurred. According to FAZ, the perpetrators then filmed their victims and, in videos posted on the internet, presented them as Sunni victims of the regime.
An independent investigation is clearly needed to establish which of these two versions is correct. It would not be surprising if both sides were found guilty of acts of savagery in what is fast becoming a sectarian civil war.
What role are outside actors playing? Each is pursuing its own strategic interest. The keys to the Syrian crisis lie outside Syria. Indeed, the Syrian crisis cannot be separated from the massive pressures being put on Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama is now fully mobilised against both regimes. He seems to have given up trying to secure a win-win deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, and he is sabotaging Kofi Annan’s Syrian peace plan by conniving in the arming of the rebels. He seems to want to bring down the regimes in both Tehran and Damascus -- either because he sees Iran as a rival in the Gulf region or to win the favours of Israel’s American supporters in an election year.
Israel has openly declared its keen interest in Asad’s overthrow. President Shimon Peres -- a wolf in sheep’s clothing whose deal with the French back in the 1950s provided Israel with its first nuclear weapons -- declared that he hoped the Syrian rebels would win. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu went one better. Borrowing a phrase from George W. Bush, he has called the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah resistance alliance an “axis of evil.” Clearly, Israel is pushing the United States and its allies to bring down the whole axis which has dented its supremacy in the Levant.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main Arab backers of the Syrian rebels, seem largely driven by sectarian passions. They see Shia Iran as a threat to Sunni primacy. They, too, seek to bring down the regimes in Iran and Syria. However, it might be wiser for them to support, rather than subvert, these regimes, which have tried to stand up to Israel. Without the protection they afford, the oil-rich Gulf States might one day wake up to find themselves the next target of unchecked Israeli power.
Many problems in Syria remain to be solved. If Asad himself were toppled, would not the officer corps and the Ba‘th party carry on the fight? If the whole state were brought down -- as happened in Iraq -- what would the next regime look like? Would extremist Islamists, bent on revenge, come to power? Would the country be dismembered, with the Alawis driven into their mountains, as Iraq was itself dismembered by the creation of a Kurdish statelet? Who will protect the minorities? Will Syria’s Christians, 10 per cent of the population, suffer the same fate as Iraq’s Christians, dispersed around the world? And would Lebanon and Jordan, not to speak of the unfortunate Palestinians languishing under Israel’s occupation, survive the shock waves of a Syrian tsunami?
The Western powers would be well advised to unite with Russia and China in putting maximum pressure on both sides to put up their arms and come to the table. Diplomacy, rather than war, is the only way to preserve what is left of Syria for its hard-pressed citizens.
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 © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global