The only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria is through the regime. Destroying the state will lead to a power vacuum and chaos

For two years, the United States and the European Union have done everything short of sending their own troops and aircraft into battle to evict Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Only recently have they begun to realise that they have made a historic mistake: in the euphoria created by the Arab Spring, they are in imminent danger of handing over the entire Arab world to Islamists for whom democracy is anathema.

In a front page editorial titled ‘The Death of a Country,’ The Economist has warned that if the West now simply draws back and lets the civil war run its course, Syria will become “a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.”

“Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction … Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.”

Blaming Assad

Where The Economist goes dangerously wrong is in heaping all the blame for this on Mr. Assad. Had he not “embraced a policy of violence from the start” and “attacked the Arab Spring with tanks and gunships” and turned his Alawite praetorian guard upon Sunnis, he would not have “turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militants” and drawn the jihadi hosts into Syria.

To prevent Syria from turning into another Mali, therefore, it asks the U.S. and the EU to administer the same medicine it fed to Qadhafi in Libya — impose a no-fly zone, destroy Syria’s air force and missiles, and arm ‘non-Jihadi rebel groups’ with surface-to-air missiles. These prescriptions reveal a profound ignorance of the situation in both Libya and Syria.

What is more immediately relevant is that its view in not shared by any leader of the democracy movement in Syria. On the contrary, in an article in The Guardian on June 22 last year, Haytham Manna, the chairman of the 16-party National Coalition for Transition to Democracy, and Mr. Assad’s most trenchant critic in the early days of the insurgency, placed the blame for the sidelining of the democracy movement squarely upon the West’s complicity in allowing the Istanbul based Free Syrian Army to recruit Islamist foreign fighters for the assault on Syria.

Six months later, on December 18, he wrote that the Syrian people had come to regard the foreigners not as liberators but as oppressors. “When the Syrian army attacks al-Nusra it is not as the suppressor of the popular movement, but the guarantor of the unity of Syria's diverse society … It is the alliance between foreign jihadists and some Syrians that risks tearing the country apart, leading to religious extremism, long-term sectarian war, and the persecution of minorities and various civilian groups.”

The Economist correctly perceives that as Syria disintegrates, the jihadis could use “lawless territory as a base for international terror (and) menace Israel across the Goal Heights.” But what it does not perceive is that the collapse of the Assad regime will hasten this process and end by putting Israel in mortal peril. One has only to trace the likely aftermath of its collapse to understand why.

First, the end of Mr. Assad will not necessarily mean the return of peace. As happened in Afghanistan, it will make 5,000 to 6,000 foreign jihadis redundant and turn them into loose cannons in the country. Repatriating them will be far from easy because the ‘Arab Spring’ has shattered their home economies and left millions without work. This is why Libyans make up the largest contingent among the foreign fighters in both Syria and Mali.

Struggle for power

But they cannot stay on indefinitely in Syria either for, with no common purpose left to unite them, the rivalry between the jihadis and more moderate opponents of Mr. Assad will almost certainly erupt into a struggle for power. Unlike the proxy war that it was able to wage upon Mr. Assad, this is a war the West will not be able to stay out of.

The moderates within the newly created Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary forces (SNCORF) already fear this. That is why within three months of being elected, its President Moaz al Khatib, a former Imam of the Omayyad mosque in Damascus, declared himself willing to attend a conference with Bashar al-Assad to chalk out a peaceful transition in Syria. But his weakness was exposed when the diehards in the SNCORF forced him to retract his offer within days. The only remaining option is also the easiest. This is to channel their fervour into a new jihad. The inevitable next target will be Jordan because it lies on the direct route to Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque, the second holiest shrine in Islam.

Jordan, next target

Jordan will either cave in or give them free access to the West Bank. That will leave Israel surrounded, and isolated. Any pre-emptive action it takes to make its borders more secure such as re-occupying the Sinai to block access to Gaza will alienate the Arabs, increase the sway of the jihadis, and blight the prospect for a return to democracy and religious moderation in the foreseeable future. It could also put a question mark over the long-term survival of Israel.

If Barack Obama wishes to arrest the development of another, infinitely more dangerous, quagmire in Syria and Jordan, he must do the opposite of what The Economist is proposing and heed, however belatedly, the pleas of the original Syrian National Council, and other leading democracy activists like Manna, to stop the inflow of arms and foreign fighters. This will, admittedly meet stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Libya. But Mr. Obama does not have the choice of shirking hard decisions, because he or his successors will face worse ones in the future.

Second, Mr. Obama needs to recognise that the only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy is through the regime, as is happening in Myanmar, and not after its destruction. Creating a power vacuum by destroying the state does not make way for democracy but chaos. The resulting vacuum is always filled by the most organised, ruthless and therefore undemocratic groups in a society.

In his January 7 speech to his country, Mr. Assad invited all remaining Syrian opposition groups to a second conference on democracy and threw the doors open to a fresh election and the formation of a new government. He should be strongly urged to hold it as soon, and with as few preconditions, as possible. Haytham Manna and his colleagues should be encouraged to attend the conference. Moaz al Khatib also wants to attend it: Mr. Obama should make it possible for him to do so.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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