Radical Islamists are waiting to rush into the vacuum that will be created by Assad’s fall
The end game in Syria has commenced. The king has lost several of his pieces and is cornered, with little prospects of escape and win. The best he can aspire to is an honourable draw and even that would appear to be too much to hope for. The alternatives for the king or the President are: offer a draw which means exile to another country or fight till the bitter end.
The western powers and their allies in the region have made their intentions clear: they will not settle for anything less than complete surrender and perhaps a trial for crimes against humanity either in Damascus or in the International Criminal Court. It has been known all along — and this writer has mentioned it frequently — that the real target was Iran. This has been confirmed by the latest reports of the Americans consulting Israel about the post-Assad scenario. Israel would appear to be willing and prepared to live alongside a radical, Muslim Brotherhood-al Qaeda regime next door, so long as Iran loses its most influential ally in the region; it still will have Iraq as an ally.
The course of the conflict over the past 18 months has raised serious doubts about whether all those who instigated, financed and equipped the rebels were ever ready to countenance a compromise, whereby Mr. Assad would survive in office in return for implementing his promises of reforms. That would have kept the Damascus-Tehran relationship intact and, hence, was not acceptable.
Is it too late to try for a “political” solution? Is it worth considering a formula whereby all the parties — rebels, principal stakeholders which would include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and others, P-5, Iran, the U.N. the Arab League, etc. — are brought together face-to-face with Mr. Assad or his deputy in an effort to hammer out a compromise? Keeping Iran out at Geneva was clearly evidence enough that a peaceful, political settlement was not a priority. Perhaps, the anti-regime players, by announcing at the very beginning of the revolt that Mr. Assad had to go, made the ostensible search for a political solution unconvincing.
Mr. Assad will certainly keep fighting till the bitter end; he might think he will succeed in defeating the combined might of the rebels, who by now are better organised and armed, and their backers who have announced publicly that they intend to increase their assistance to the rebels. It is open war. Mr. Assad surely knows the odds against him but he might prefer to go down fighting rather than face a Qadhafi-like end. He still has considerable stocks of conventional and chemical weapons as well as missiles. The Hezbollah in Lebanon has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel and Hassan Nasrallah has pledged support to Mr. Assad. Iran, which has more stake than any other country in the regime’s survival, will go to any length to support him, by itself and with Iraq where Malliki is openly supportive of the Assad government due to sectoral affinity. So, more, much more violence should be expected, with the war spilling over to the neighbourhood.
Who will benefit from all that violence? Surely not the people of Syria in whose name the fight is being fought! Radical Islamic elements will be the only beneficiaries. Is this what the international community wants? From all accounts, the sanctions imposed by America and Europe are badly hurting the Iranian regime and Iranian people. Iran will be further weakened but it might also unite the Iranian people behind the regime more. If the desire to avoid further bloodshed is genuine, it might still not be too late to consider something along the lines of the suggestion mentioned in the previous paragraph.
There are some principles involved in the Syrian civil war. The principle which Russia and China cite for their otherwise realpolitik motivated position is that any regime change must happen solely as a result of an agreement among the people of the country and outsiders should have no say in it. Russia insists that it is not holding any brief for Mr. Assad, but says equally firmly that the principle is important. The Libyan case is still fresh in the minds of everyone and is definitely a factor in the general reluctance to support the increasingly loud demand for the President to abdicate.
But the situation in Syria also touches on at least two other principles. One has to do with the sanctity of human life and the other concerns national interest. The almost daily massacres of scores of people do pose a challenge to individual and collective conscience: can one remain silent in the face of such events? Of course, since the world is fed exclusively by the western media, one gets the impression that the regime alone is responsible for all the mayhem, which is not the case at all. We are told frequently by the U.N. sources that “armed groups” are equally engaged in the killing sprees. Kofi Annan is careful in demanding that “both sides” stop the violence. Nevertheless, since the regime is far better equipped in terms of lethal weapons, even as the opposition is getting more and more deadly arms from various, known sources, the onus is particularly heavy on the regime. While condemning the bloody violence in the country, there is no need to strike a balance between the two sides. The regime will have to be singled out as more responsible, just as we are more critical of the Israeli government for the disproportionate use of force in retaliating against Palestinian attacks.
The principle of national interest has two aspects: the forces of history argument and hard national interest. It is best when the two converge as they do in the Syrian case. It is good to be on the right side of history, though it is not always evident what the right side might be in every situation. It is more important to be on the winning side and there is little doubt about who the winning side will be. So many countries have invested so much in this conflict that they simply cannot afford to fail or back out. It is only a matter of time before the new President of Egypt, Morsi, comes out on the side of the Syrian opposition. He recently went to Saudi Arabia where he was offered significant aid and whose king would have certainly asked him to join in the battle or war to protect fellow Sunnis in Syria.
It made good sense for India to have voted in favour of the resolution that was vetoed by Russia and China. Of course, we would have felt ‘good’ to have abstained, but more important than feeling good is to think of what is good for us. Our interests go beyond Syria since we have enormous stake in the stability of the whole region — energy, six million strong Indian workers, their remittances back home, to name a few. Syria’s neighbours, determined as they are to get rid of Mr. Assad, will certainly not forget who their friends were at the time of their need. Kuwaitis have still not forgotten India’s ambivalent position at the time of Saddam Hussein’s attempt to swallow their country in 1990, though it has not come in the way of healthy relations with India (which is partly at least a factor of our improved relations with Saudi Arabia).
Other countries are not so large hearted as India is; we did not harbour any grudge against all those countries that did not support us either at the time of Chinese aggression in 1962 or at the time of our crisis over Bangladesh in 1971.
Whatever else one might say about the Ba’ath regime, it was secular. It did not persecute anyone on the ground of being a Sunni or any other sect, except of course members of Muslim Brotherhood. The international community ought to be, but does not seem to be, concerned at the fate that would await the minorities in post-Assad Syria. Hardly a murmur is heard in the western media on this. The concern is genuine. The Muslim Brotherhood, the way it has been dealt with by the two Assad regimes, will surely wreak vengeance when the opportunity presents itself. This is already happening and will greatly escalate in future.
Sadly, one has not heard any reassuring voice from the opposition groups in this regard. Their sponsors should advise them to do so. It is not enough to include this sentiment in declarations drafted by “friends of Syria.” ‘After Assad, what?’ is a question that should engage the attention of all those who are single-mindedly bent on getting rid of him, not so much in terms of who will take over power as in terms of what awaits the minority communities in Syria. How will the U.N. guarantee protection to them? Surely, the international community must live up to its responsibility to ensure their safety. It would be appropriate for India to highlight this aspect.
(The author, a former Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations, is a commentator on international affairs.)