POWER PLAY IN DAMASCUS - Syria's troubles can affect other countries, including India

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By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan The author is former under secretary general in the United Nations and special envoy of India for West Asia
  • Published 18.06.12
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Syria today has become a high stake theatre of three distinct, yet interconnected, wars — local or internal, regional and extra-regional.

At the local level, it is a conflict for power between the regime and its opponents, a conflict which started with small beginnings but has since become a life and death struggle for the protagonists. It started modestly enough with some protesters demanding reform; demand for regime change came later, mostly because of external factors having interposed themselves in the situation. The genuinely popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt provided the initial stimulus. The regime failed to read the signs correctly. It could have defused the situation by responding positively to the call for reform which the president had often stated in the past he wanted to implement on his own. Ribal al-Assad, a first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, who runs an organization called The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria out of London, is not an apologist for the regime and holds Bashar responsible for the behaviour of his abhorrent regime. However, he believes that Bashar is largely without power, and is out of his depth, surrounded by feuding generals, sectarian divisions and vested foreign interests.

On the other hand, the Opposition is fractured, without any common ideology, without unified leadership and heavily infiltrated by radical and criminal elements from outside. Syria has always had a presence of the Muslim Brotherhood which the regime had suppressed through often extremely harsh and inhuman methods. The chaos in the country has provided an unexpectedly huge opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme Islamist groups, including al-Qaida, to occupy the space and emerge as important players, perhaps more influential than the ‘democratic’ forces. They may be united by the ‘Bashar must go’ slogan for the time being, but would splinter if and when that happens; this is where the regional and extra-regional factors would come into play.

There is an academic debate going on over whether Syria is already in the throes of a civil war. What is undeniable is that people are dying in large numbers, including women and children as happened in the Houla massacre a few weeks ago. Most observers, including Ribal al-Assad, are not ready to put the entire blame for the event on security forces. Even Kofi Annan, the special envoy for the United N ations and the Arab League, while largely blaming the regime, is careful not to exonerate the Opposition. There is no doubt that the regime’s forces carried out tank and artillery attacks. The protesters too have claimed that they killed 85 security personnel during the course of one weekend, thus providing conclusive evidence of the help they are receiving from outside. There is wide consensus that in the event of the fall of the regime there will be a bloodbath on sectarian lines, with the majority Sunnis going after the tiny Alawite Shia community that has been ruling the country for the past four decades, as well other minority groups, such as Christians and others, who have generally prospered under the regime.

At the regional level, the struggle is even more serious and is mainly between the Shia coalition involving Iran, Iraq and the Hizbullah of Lebanon, and the Sunni states, principally Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but also several Gulf states, principally Qatar. Egypt is preoccupied with its own revolution for the present, but would not remain neutral in this rivalry which is as old as Islam itself. According to some reports, all the 108 victims of the Houla massacre were Sunnis. However, according to a report in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German daily, the bulk of the victims were Alawi and other Shia minorities. Iran has enormous stakes in the survival of the regime and will do whatever it would take to bolster it. Its task is facilitated by the best gift the United States of America gave to Iran when it greatly strengthened Iran’s grip over Iraq following its intervention in Iraq in 2003. Iran thus has a secure corridor through Iraq to reach whatever it wants to send to the regime in Damascus. There are reports of Iraq sending oil to Syria as well as of Sunnis in Iraq getting ready to go to the help of fellow Sunnis in Syria. The Hizbullah, which has veto power in the Lebanese government, can certainly be expected to jump into Syria as and when asked to do so by Iran. This highly emotive and potentially deadly Shia-Sunni great game, about which this writer has been writing for several years, and which is downplayed by many, will have repercussions well beyond the region, including in our sub-continent. The respective leaders of these coalitions are not averse to carrying the feud to other parts of the Muslim world. Sectarian violence has been going on in Pakistan for decades. One must also take into account the possibility of Hizbullah hotting things up with Israel, thus widening the scope of the conflict.

For extra-regional powers, mainly the West, the target is Iran as much as, if not more than, the Damascus regime. The US and others are no doubt concerned about the killing fields in Syria, but they, and Israel, are not averse to using the opportunity provided by the unrest in Syria to break the Teheran-Damascus axis; it would be a huge plus for them since it would greatly diminish Iran’s clout in the region. In the past, Washington offered carrots to Damascus to sever links with Teheran, but to no avail. The protest movement has provided a legitimate provocation on humanitarian grounds to intervene. Western powers were, and are still, hoping to do a Libya in Syria. But this calls for a unified Opposition combined with some ‘liberated’ territory where money, munitions and military trainers can be dispatched. As of now, the Opposition has shown no inclination to oblige.

Russia has its own interest in protecting the Assad regime. Syria’s Tartus port is the sole base facility for Russian navy in the Mediterranean and the Russians are not about to give it up, which they most likely will have to, if a radical or a pro-West regime takes over in Damascus. Russia, more than the West, is concerned about the rise of Islamic radicalism in the West Asian region. It has been mentioned by some observers, perhaps unfairly, that Western nations are not much concerned about the heightened sectarian tensions because, for the born-again Christians, intra-Muslim violence is not a bad thing.

Lack of unified and credible opposition has made the task of all those seeking regime change a difficult one. The external sponsors and supporters of the Opposition are not able to put together a road map on how to achieve their aim. The regime is not going to go away any time soon, despite inspired stories of dissensions among the Alawite community. Military intervention, analogous to the one in Libya, is ruled out by those powers as not a viable option. Western powers have already imposed unilateral sanctions, but robust sanctions by the security council are unlikely to receive Russian, and Chinese, endorsement. But here, a caveat is advisable. Russia, like other permanent members of the UN, may use its clout on the Syrian situation to extract concessions on other issues of interest to it which might be totally unconnected to Syria. The P-5 are always making deals among themselves. So, the possibility of Russia making a deal should not be ruled out. China, in that case, will find some form of words to go along with Russia; as a general rule, China takes a strong independent position only on questions involving its sovereignty over Taiwan.

Under the circumstances, the security council has done what it usually does in such situations. It has asked the secretary-general to suggest options, alternative approaches on what to do. The secretary-general, on his part, will do what secretaries-general usually do; he will consult primarily the permanent members, but also other important players such as some Arab states, Iran as well as Turkey; try to ascertain the minimum common denominator and put forward some ideas. Russia has proposed an international conference.

Thus, depressing as it sounds, the people of Syria seem doomed to continue to suffer for quite some time to come.

As for India, we ought to be seriously concerned about the instability that the Syrian situation has created in the whole region. We have enormous interests in the region which will be jeopardized if the conflict spreads beyond Syria. We have to condemn all the atrocities, but not try too much to strike a balance between the regime-inflicted violence and the Opposition-caused casualties. On the diplomatic front, we should activate the BRICS forum and send a joint team to Damascus to try and talk to both sides. We should also actively support the Russian initiative for an international conference.