Opinion » Lead

Updated: April 30, 2013 01:25 IST

The road to Damascus

Vijay Prashad
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Fanned by powers with vested interests and Assad’s unwillingness to consider any entente, the conflict in Syria is proving to be intractable

Impossible positions staked out by the two sides in the Syrian conflict have saturated the country with the blood of tens of thousands. Powers outside Syria, eager for their own regional gains, fan the flames without applying themselves to the suffering. Among their plans might be this slow bleeding or the gradual break-up of the country — but this is all done in the name of people, whose cries are without ears. The United Nations has sent two envoys to create space for negotiations.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s failure was spectacular. Following Mr. Annan came the Algerian diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, whose frustrations have not been kept secret. On April 19, Mr. Brahimi briefed the Security Council, the text of which was swiftly leaked. The Brahimi statement bemoans the immense suffering of the Syrian people, with 3.5 million refugees outside the country and 6.8 million people in need of aid inside (out of a population of 23 million). Almost half the population of Syria, Mr. Brahimi said, is “gravely affected by the conflict.”

“Everyone in Syria today lives with terror in their hearts that a catastrophe is waiting to affect their shattered lives.” Having failed to make a breakthrough, Mr. Brahimi apologised to the Syrian people for having “done so little.”

State violence

The first 11 months of the Syrian Spring were largely peaceful. Opposition groups that had sought democracy in Syria for decades joined youthful protesters inspired by events in North Africa. Horrible violence by the state tried to shut down the protests. In May 2011, 13-year old Hamza al-Khatib was tortured in detention and his scarred dead body thrown on the roads of Daraa for his family to pick up. In July 2011, a fireman from Hama, Ibrahim Qashush, sang, “Come on Bashar, leave!” (Yallah Irhal ya Bashar); his throat was sliced open, vocal cords were ripped out and his body was mutilated to death. Mr. Assad’s advisors asked him to go to Daraa and apologise for what had happened. But he refused.

Two years later, Mr. Assad said he was right in not going to Daraa, and not offering an apology. It tells you something about his state of mind now that he continues to believe that it would have been wrong to have reached out to a section of the Syrian population deeply alienated from his regime.

Mr. Assad had reason to be afraid — Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were removed from high office by the force of a popular will. His father, Hafez al-Assad, had shown in 1982 that any amount of violence against an opposition could be used without consequence. This was the lesson learned by the son. Fierce violence against street protests was met with arrests of the secular opposition. Mr. Assad was not willing to consider any entente with the forces on the street, and, as the violence picked up, nor were they willing to consider his continuation in power. The road to Damascus has only one lane — compromise is not a destination along it.

Political Islam’s opportunity

In the early summer of 2011, Mr. Assad marched off the leaders of the secular opposition to prison. The space for a negotiated settlement narrowed. Anger on the streets escalated. The exiled leadership of the political Islamic organisations began to be more assertive. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose cells within Syria had been deep underground, knew that they could not have a presence in more than half of Syria’s provinces. Demography goes against them. Backed by Qatari money and emboldened by western enthusiasm to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, the Brotherhood and groups far more extreme than it (such as Jabhat al-Nusra) appointed themselves the opposition’s leadership.

Unwilling to conduct a Libya-style intervention, the West preferred to encourage the emerging armed phase of the conflict from the sidelines. Israeli reticence about a future Islamist government in Damascus and the lack of major defections in the Syrian military stayed the hand of the West’s war planners. Turkey’s advanced position for Mr. Assad’s removal was squelched by Mr. Assad’s clever use of the Kurdish card. It was left to the Qataris and Saudis, with full backing from the West, to finance the armed groups in Syria, which faced a regime army that continued to be supplied by Russia and Iran. From outside, the situation resembles a proxy war but as Mr. Brahimi told the Security Council, “the conflict remains essentially a savage civil war between Syrians.”

Mr. Assad’s lessons from his father and the encouragement of the opposition from the Gulf Arabs and the West gave both sides the “determination and confidence that they can win on the ground,” Mr. Brahimi notes. Two years of trench warfare has bled Syria, but not moved either side closer to a military solution. Mr. Assad has greeted all talk of a political solution with contempt. The opposition’s main platforms have been equally obstinate. On January 30, 2012, the leader of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, offered an initiative that was, as Mr. Brahimi put it, “in its simple, almost naïve form, a breath of fresh air and a ray of hope in a profoundly bleak situation.” He asked Mr. Assad to release all political prisoners, and then later only women prisoners, as a humanitarian ex gratia gesture that would be met with talks from the opposition. Before Mr. Assad could reject this, as he might have, Mr. al-Khatib’s own colleagues scuttled it. They removed his space for manoeuvre. In March, the Arab League announced that the Coalition would be the representative of Syria at their meetings “until elections are held in Syria.” As Mr. Brahimi notes, by this act the Arab League suggested, “no dialogue or negotiations are possible or necessary.” A year later, it was Mr. al-Khatib who took Syria’s seat at the Doha meeting of the Arab League.

Obstacles to a negotiated settlement came up as well from the West’s preferred candidate in the Coalition, Ghassan Hitto. Hitto rejected any dialogue with the Assad government and called for “surgical strikes” against Mr. Assad’s armies as the U.S. pledged to double its aid to the rebels.

Brahimi’s Plan

Over the course of the past eight months, Mr. Brahimi has attempted to forge a Syrian Plan. The tide has not favoured this ambition. In the Security Council, Mr. Brahimi laid out five parameters towards a political settlement:

(1) Following the entreaty of the Secretary General of the Security Council, arms flows to all sides must end. These will not stop, however, unless a political process is in the offing.

(2) The opposition must be more united, with the various factions willing to accede to a common, credible leadership. In other words, the tussles between Mr. al-Khatib and Mr. Hitto, magnified by the divisions between their geopolitical allies, need to end, and groups such as al-Nusra need to be harnessed by this opposition or else it will act against any peace process.

(3) The opposition must give up its dreams of military intervention by the West, for it is “neither likely or desirable; nor can such an intervention be provoked.” The recent entente between Turkey and Israel is not a prelude to any major assault, nor is NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s comment that his alliance remains “extremely vigilant.”

(4) The Assad regime must give up its fantasy of a military victory.

(5) The Assad regime must not believe that the existence of al-Nusra and al-Qaeda will somehow change the geopolitical situation in its favour. The West’s intentions will not be diverted into a grand alliance with the Assad regime to fight al-Qaeda.

A political settlement has been long overdue in this bloody conflict, whose social costs Mr. Brahimi likened to the “exodus of Palestinians from their land in 1948 and 1967.” This is an emotional parallel, but accurate. It tells us a great deal about the intractable nature of the conflict, fanned on by powers from afar that have interests which are not the same as those of the Syrian people.

((Vijay Prashad is the author of two new books, Uncle Swami (HarperCollins) and The Poorer Nations (LeftWord))

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Setting aside the current problems in Damascus,it is worth while
to remember some interesting information about Damascus

In every corner and alley, visible or invisible, in the city. It is no accident that most of the old stories written about Damascus assert its erotic natural beauty. When he visited Damascus in 1869, Mark Twain described it in The Innocents Abroad as “a type of immortality.” According to Twain, “so long as its waters remain to it—so long will Damascus live.” Nizar Qabbani, the poet of love and passion, expressed his nostalgia for the old houses of Damascus in his poem “Letter to My Mother,” in which he says: “Damascus at night, Damascus jasmine/ Damascus houses/ Find a home in our hearts.” Therefore, like jasmine, passion blooms everywhere.

30 th april

from:  T.S.Gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 18:18 IST

Be careful what you wish for. The West and the world should worry about what will transpire in the event of Assad falling. There will be chaos, division, retribution, killings and bombings. Groups allied to Al Qaeda will fight for power, then each other and Syria could potentially turn into another failed state with terrorists targeting the West, Israel and other democratic institutions. India need not get involved as Syria is double-edged sword. India need to concentrate on protecting their own borders against Chinese, Pakistani intrusions and Bangldeshi migrants.

from:  Vipul
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 15:20 IST

The abhorrent apathy meted out by the Syrian leadership towards its
compatriots has turned the region into an abyss for millions of
innocents. While the unjustified violence adopted by Assad for
avoiding an overthrow seen in Arab nations experiencing the Arab
Spring was condemned unanimously, the very adoption of armed
resistance to the rule has made the opposition lose a moral ground.
Cogent reports of Western and Arab nations financed rebels' presence
in the region has protracted the peace process.
While, even Kofi Annan and Brahimi's role seems obviated in the
ongoing violent tensions, the refugees and the displaced people hold
little hope for a revival of Syria's fortunes.
What is therefore required at this stage, is an immediate diplomatic
solution with input from UN, Syria and its neighbors, to the ongoing
tensions that has promising ramifications for the countrymen and the
region's stability.

from:  nitesh chaudhary
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 11:43 IST

This article has rightly pointed out that the problem lies with both sides. Assad has acted very arrogantly and closed his eyes to reality. He has unleashed a cycle of state sponsored violence upon protesters. Even if he manages to get a military victory, it will be very difficult for him to rule over such a divided country.
The opposition too has to take the blame. What started as a cry for democracy got hijacked by vested interests.There are ample evidences that when outside powers start dictating terms then opposition forces lose their credibility and ability to take decisions in tune with popular aspirations. The opposition will have to be united and this requires strong leadership.
With China and Russia firmly behind Assad and West and arab countries behind the opposition, a military victory is elusive for both parties. The saner approach would be to strive for a political solution which requires compromises on behalf of both, but mainly Assad.

from:  Mukut Ray
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 11:20 IST

I think Turkey will lead the forces against Assad regime, Iran no longer can support

from:  arvin
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 10:14 IST

The analysis by author leaves out much of the role played by western governments and their middle east proxies in initiating and supporting violence in Syria. They have initiated the crisis and supported it through arms supply and recruitment of mercenaries including Al Qaida in Syria. The game of regime change would have been long over had it not been for Russia and China's opposition. This is a correction to their position on Libya when they were taken in by the Western propaganda. The Indian governments position in both Libya and now in Syria has been pathetic and shameful and against our national ethos.

from:  Jameel Ahmad Khan
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 07:54 IST

Good chronology but without pointing to solution.
The solution lies in hands of Western countries and US.Realizing fully
well this,Assad at one point offered to bow down the pressure and
offered negotiations with clear agenda that he will go but who will
replace him and in case of new election what will be the interim
Govt.authority.There was no response from any side!! (knowingly)
All including Russia have supplied arms but western countries were the
first to enflame.No one expected to this end and all are puzzled
now.Assad in his position thought his duty any how to maintain law and
order in his country and he is right.Peaceful or not he has to suppress
opposition with high hand when he knew who are behind the
opposition,none but western countries and US.They are ready to
gulp(Swallow) up Syria but for the check from Russia and Iran.Now the
best advantage of this is being taken by Alqueda obviously
Better late than never the only solution is to strengthen the hands of

from:  Ashok
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 07:40 IST

The author of this article has failed to mention the question of the possible use of
chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and what that means with regards to action
by the US and the UK. President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would
be crossing a red line and could prompt further action by the US, more than just
providing the aid that they currently do to the rebels.

from:  Nikhil Venkatesa
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 07:34 IST

All of the countries who talk of suffering of the Syrians are
hypocritical and farce. They have inept political ambitions and they are
just making propaganda in a the support of so Syrian people. They talk
of political solution and on the same time supply weapons.............

from:  zaki zaidi
Posted on: Apr 30, 2013 at 02:16 IST
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