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.”
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.
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))