The two-year civil war in Syria has reached a highly critical juncture. Either the antagonists will persist in their life-and-death struggle or they will decide to seek some sort of a compromise -- imperfect, of course, like all compromises -- but which would put an end to the blood-letting and save their country from partition and ultimate destruction as a major player on the Middle East scene. That is the choice facing both the regime and its enemies.
External powers have contributed to the present calamity. They, too, must decide whether to press forward in the hope of making gains which would bolster their own position or whether, on the contrary, they should encourage the various warring factions in Syria to put up their guns and come to the conference table.
The one mildly encouraging factor in a very bleak overall situation is that the United States and Russia seem, at last, to be coming round to the view that the best way to prevent a disastrous partition of Syria -- which would be a formula for unlimited guerrilla warfare -- would be to preside jointly over a democratic political transition. A necessary first step towards such an outcome would be to stop the killing by imposing an arms embargo on both sides of the conflict. A second step would be to exclude all those diehards who refuse to compromise and bring together patriots from all camps who wish to save their country from further bloodshed and destruction
We are still, alas, some way from such a happy solution. The immense human and material damage of the past two years will not easily be forgotten -- or forgiven. More than a million Syrians have fled to safety in neighbouring countries. Several million more have been internally displaced. The cost to the country has been incalculable. The death toll has crept up to around 70,000.
Syria has been a major player on the Middle East scene for the past five decades. Its demise -- for that is what we are witnessing -- is bound to have far-reaching consequences. How will Syria’s collapse affect the future power structures of Middle East politics? And what does the future hold for other players who are involved in the conflict? Neighbouring states – such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar -- have all been drawn into the struggle, one way or another. We are living through a period of great regional uncertainty, but who would dare predict what the outcome will be?
It seems that the Syrian rebels who rose against the regime of President Bashar al-Asad two years ago may have been influenced by the Western intervention to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gathafi of Libya. They may have been misled by the Libyan example into believing that, if they rebelled, the West would rush to their aid. This was, very probably, their biggest error. They are still bitterly complaining of the lack of external support for their revolution and are pressing for more. Some Syrian opposition fighters are now being armed and trained by Western instructors in neighbouring countries, but not on a scale which might tilt the balance decisively against the regime.
At the start of the conflict, President Bashar seems to have been misled into thinking that his nationalist stance and his opposition to Israel would protect him from a popular explosion of dissent. In retrospect, perhaps his greatest mistake was a failure to understand where the explosive forces lay in Syrian society itself. If he knew they were there, he failed to act to defuse them.
Who are the foot-soldiers of the Syrian revolution? First of all, they are the semi-educated urban unemployed, victims of Syria’s population explosion in recent years. When I wrote my first book about Syria in the 1960s (The Struggle for Syria, Oxford University Press, 1965), there were four million Syrians; today there are 24 million. Syria is not a rich country. Compared to the Gulf sheikhdoms -- or indeed to Saudi Arabia, Iran or Turkey -- it is very poor indeed. There are large numbers of young people in Syrian cities today for whom there are no jobs.
In even worse shape are the rural victims of the worst drought in Syria’s recorded history which, from 2006 to 2011, forced hundreds of thousands of peasants to leave their land, slaughter their animals and move to poverty belts around the cities. In 2009, the UN and other agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the great drought. To save their lives, and the lives of their children, they fled to the cities.
In retrospect, it is clear that President Bashar and his government did not do enough to help the drought-stricken peasantry or to create jobs for the urban unemployed. Their urgent priority should have been to launch major programmes to help these two categories of victims. Syria could probably have secured financial help from Gulf States or international organisations, if it had asked for it. Instead, the regime focused on promoting tourism, on rehabilitating the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, on a nation-wide network of museums; on encouraging the use of the internet and other social media. These policies, admirable in themselves, benefited a small new affluent class, but did little for the desperately poor in the cities and the countryside, who most needed help.
One might add that President Bashar’s attention seems to have been focussed less on internal problems and more on external threats and conspiracies against Syria -- a mind-set he inherited from his father, the former President Hafiz al-Asad who ruled for 30 years from 1970 to 2000. We must not forget that, after the 1973 war, Egypt’s removal from the Arab line-up -- as engineered by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- exposed Syria and Lebanon to the full force of Israeli power. Indeed, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 attempted to expel Syrian influence and bring Lebanon into Israel’s orbit. In response, Hafiz al-Asad worked to form the ‘Resistance Axis’ of Iran, Syria and Hizballah, which was partially able to hold Israel’s regional ambitions in check.
President Bashar has had to deal with situations at least as threatening as any faced by his father. Had the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- as planned by the pro-Israeli neo-cons -- been successful, Syria would have been the next target. Syria then faced a series of dangerous crises: the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006; the destruction of Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007; Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-9.
All these aggressions were rightly seen by Damascus as regime-threatening crises. It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that when the uprising started in Deraa in 2011, the Syrian regime seems to have interpreted it as yet another external conspiracy against it, rather than a cry of anger and despair by its own much-tried population. The hope is that the lessons of these many crises will have been learned and that Syrians will now unite to rescue their country from the abyss.
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 © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global