Instead of raising the spectre of regime change, the West must learn from its experiences in the Arab Spring and find more effective ways of helping the Syrian people.
Foreign policy has very few tongue-in-cheek moments. Yet, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad called on the British government to show restraint while quelling its rioters, and suggested a full report on human rights violations in the United Kingdom, many Arab leaders found it hard to conceal a grin. Western (read American, British, French) interventions in West Asia this year have met with few success stories, and as the international community steps up the pressure on Syria after weeks of a brutal military crackdown on protests in Hama, Daraa and other towns, a drum roll is under way.
If anyone feels that no action is likely at present, remember that the U.S. went from calling for strikes on Libyan ‘adventurism' to joining NATO in raining Tomahawks on Tripoli in a matter of days. In Syria too, the language has toughened. After weeks of demurring, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice is now directly calling for Assad's removal, saying ‘Syria would be better off without him.” But whether it has been direct intervention as in the case of Libya, a barrage of special envoys as in Egypt, or mild rebukes, as in the case of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the western powers have not achieved the results they desired. In fact, the much heralded Arab Spring seems to have lost, well, the spring in its step. Either way, a ground reality check is in order.
The first revolution in Tunisia is one example, ending as it did before the world could even react to it. While 23 of ousted President Ben-Ali's family members and friends have since been put on trial, real power remains with the Army. Already, plans for elections have been postponed once — from July 14 to October 23. The unkindest cut, perhaps, was a New York Times report from the town of Sidi Bouzid, home of iconic protestor Mohammad Bouazizi who set himself ablaze and sparked off the revolutions. That report claimed that his townsmen are so disillusioned by the lack of real change in their lives that they have torn down all posters showing him.
In the democracy-chaser's lexicon, though, it is Egypt and not Tunisia that heralded true hope. Here was a revolution that played out day in and day out for 18 days on TV screens across the world as young protesters came out to fight in Tahrir Square for an end to military rule and the tight control of intelligence forces, and for a complete set of political reforms.
Despite several strong statements, the international community has been unable to guarantee much to them. While Hosni Mubarak and his sons are on trial, many of his loyalists in the military continue to hold key positions. The army or the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) has maintained a tight grip over the country. Men in uniform are still present in all key Ministries, including the Telecommunications Ministry that has full surveillance powers.
The voices of Tahrir have also been subdued; some prosecuted and silenced, others just ignored. A case in point was that of technocrat Hazem Abdel Azem, who was due to be sworn in as the first revolutionary leader to be included in the Egyptian Cabinet of interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in July. Hours before the swearing-in ceremony, the SCAF withdrew Dr. Hazem's name, citing trumped-up charges that he was an Israeli agent.
Perhaps the greatest blow to the pro-democracy protesters has been dealt from within the Tahrir Square movement — the liberals now pushed aside by the religiously conservative Salafists. Last month, a massive rally called for the ‘Day of Unity' ended without much unity, as Salafists and Islamists overran everyone with a massive show of strength, making a call not for reform, but for the Sharia to be implemented in Egypt. Many now fear that these extreme right-wingers, who effectively won the vote on a constitutional referendum in March (with a 77 per cent majority), could overtake even the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections (now postponed beyond November 2011). The international community has had little say in Egypt, or in other countries that saw massive demonstrations: Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have also seen sparks of revolt dying with little or no pressure in their favour from the West.
However, nowhere have the questions been more uncomfortable for the world to answer than in Libya. It was here that the U.K., France and the U.S. focussed their intervention — but despite five months of relentless bombing, they have achieved little by way of peace, or the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi. They have succeeded only in pushing the country towards civil war.
Since March 19, when those U.N.-sanctioned strikes began, rebel forces have made some gains. But they have been largely restricted to the Cyrenaica region, and are nowhere near taking the Tripolitana or Fezzan regions controlled by Mr. Qadhafi. This fact alone should indicate that Mr. Qadhafi retains some popularity, and that despite being given weaponry, support and recognition by Paris, London and Washington, the rebel forces have not received the widespread popular welcome that was expected. None of the charges of genocide and mass rape levelled against Mr. Qadhafi's forces has been proven either — despite the U.N. Secretary General's own commission of enquiry visiting the hardest hit towns. Yet, NATO continues to bombard Libyans in Qadhafi-controlled areas and has killed hundreds of people. Last month, its forces even targeted Libyan TV in Al-Jamahiriya for what NATO called “terror broadcasts.” That strike killed three journalists, and was condemned by the chief of UNESCO. Meanwhile, news that the rebel military chief, Abdel Fattah Younes, was killed by one of his own men created new worries for the rebel leadership of the Transitional National Council (TNC), and cast doubts on its ability to control tribal rivalries if Mr. Qadhafi were to go.
Perhaps the real problem is that the world identified each of these uprisings as purely democratic, unifying movements. In fact, they have exposed more fault lines inside the Arab world than they have bridged — Shia-Sunni tensions, tribal rivalries, long-simmering seperatist movements, and the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Another problem is that according to statistics, shows of massive public strength as we have seen do not always translate into positive change for the people. Author Omar Ashour points out how all studies on ‘nations in transition' point to quite the opposite: according to one published in the Journal of Democracy, of 100 countries in stages of upheaval between 1970 and 2000, only 20 became full-fledged democracies. Five relapsed into dictatorships (like Algeria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), and the rest were stuck somewhere in transition. Another study by Columbia University finds that about 43 per cent of countries that have defeated a dictator through an armed popular uprising, have subsequently fallen into civil war.
All this history, and particularly the experiences of other Arab nations in 2011, should weigh heavily on the U.N. Security Council as it considers its next step on Syria. India, Brazil and South Africa have chosen to distance themselves from the West's clamour for tougher action against Assad for now, sending their own teams to Damascus to ascertain facts. And even as the visuals from Hama and Daraa have chilled the world; Assad's tanks seen brutally blasting through civilian areas, and police firing at unarmed protesters — it may be better to consider more effective methods of protecting Syria's people, lest unfortunate comparisons of the sort Britain faced this month hit home.
(Suhasini Haidar is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN.)