The simplistic assessment of the crisis being only about a repressive regime needs to change
Under way for over two years, the Syrian civil war has already claimed close to 80,000 lives. In and of itself, this should have been sufficient to stir the conscience of the international community to redouble efforts to persuade the Assad regime and an assortment of rebels armed to the teeth, to walk back from the violence and commence a Syrian-led negotiating process for an acceptable outcome. Unfortunately, maximalist positions of the two sides — President Assad’s exit demanded by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states, and treating the crisis as a security issue by the Assad regime — has prevented any serious attempt at reconciliation.
Despite agreement between the United States and Russia to convene Geneva 2, some time in the second half of June, the facts on the ground clearly suggest that the initiative is unlikely to succeed. In fact, the actions of the international community’s major stakeholders are continuing to exacerbate the crisis. The simplistic fig leaf that this was a brutal and repressive regime targeting innocent and helpless civilians, demanding their democratic rights as part of the Arab Spring, needs to be shed in favour of more clinical assessments.
Drawing inspiration from the three easy steps for regime change in Libya — a Security Council Resolution, arming of rebels and NATO military action, the rebels, who were armed quite openly by Qatar and covertly by Saudi Arabia and clandestinely by others — the West and Gulf states expected the same in Syria. Given the Libyan experience and strategic interests of Russia, however, the Security Council failed to oblige. Russia and China vetoed three draft resolutions in 2011-12. Unilateral military action by NATO or Coalition of the Willing did not materialise either.
More important still, there are increasing doubts on whether arming the rebels was such a good idea given the proliferation of extremists groups, one of which, the Al-Nusra Front, had to be banned by the U.S. How does one ensure that arms go only to the good rebels? Even the description of “good” is subjective. Turkey and Qatar, it would appear, have no hesitation in supporting rebels drawing inspiration from the Islamic Brotherhood; Saudi Arabia favours Salafist groups. Hopefully, they all agree that al-Qaeda does not qualify for assistance.
With sectarian fault lines within Syria now opened threadbare, the possibility of the present compact that has ruled Syria comprising 12 per cent Alawites, 10 per cent Christians and some Sunni business class continuing to exercise power in any post-Assad dispensation, is a non-starter. Given the brutality of the violence on both sides, the prevailing sentiment among the Sunnis backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and sections of the political class in the West not fully educated in the sectarian tensions of the region, is to “send the Alawites to their graves and the Christians to Lebanon.” Clearly, no post-Assad dispensation in Syria will be viable unless effective security guarantees can be provided for the safety of nearly 20 per cent of the population. Who will provide these?
The “top down” model for a negotiated settlement on which Geneva 1 was based last year and on which Geneva 2, if it has to have better luck than Geneva 1, has to be predicated on all parties to the conflict agreeing to participate. That is the easiest part. Agreement can also perhaps be reached that both Saudi Arabia and Iran, given their stake in the civil war, should be invited. Now comes the more difficult part.
The just concluded battle for Qusayr shows that this is now a full-fledged war in which the Lebanon-based Shiite group, Hezbollah, is openly and fully involved. Any residual doubts were removed when the Hezbollah leader, Nasrullah, explicitly so announced on May 25.
With 12,000 Hezbollah fighters now reportedly fighting along with Assad’s troops and paramilitary militias drawn from his Alawite sect against an assortment of rebels, mostly Sunnis with varying degrees of radicalisation, a negotiated settlement would appear less likely than at any time in the last two years.
For Hezbollah, established to fight Israel, this is clearly a gamble. Apart from fighting the Syrian rebels, they will have to confront pan-Arab sentiment. In the process, tensions between the Shia crescent from Iran, covering Iraq, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Gulf states and their western backers can only increase. A desire to weaken the Iran-dominated crescent cannot but open the sectarian fault lines throughout the region.
Hezbollah’s more direct involvement, rather the timing of the announcement coincides with Russia’s decision to supply the Assad regime with more sophisticated weaponries. The Russian decision constitutes, in a sense, an insurance just in case the U.S. is persuaded by the British and the French to consider the imposition of a no-fly zone and aerial action. Israeli strikes in Syria, in turn, want to prevent the sophisticated weapons falling in to the hands of Hezbollah for use against Israel.
The European Union announced on May 27 that it has decided not to renew the embargo on supply of lethal arms to the Syrian rebels.
The humanitarian tragedy unfolding for Syria’s 22 million people, with close to four million internally displaced and the increasing brutality of the sectarian violence would appear to point towards a prolongation of the civil war. Even the fall of President Assad’s regime is now unlikely to restore peace and security in Syria. Sectarian war will not only continue, but result in the country’s de facto division into three largely autonomous regions dominated by the Alawites, Kurds and Sunnis, the internal boundaries of which will be determined by the prevailing military balance on the ground.
The assessment that while Libya imploded, Syria will explode with unimaginable consequences will prove to be right. The unfolding scenario constitutes the biggest threat to international peace and security in recent times. The continuing paralysis and helplessness of the Security Council constitutes, in a sense, also the most comprehensive statement of its irrelevance.
(Hardeep S. Puri is a retired diplomat.)