By Mohamed El Mokhtar
I have said shortly after the beginning of the Syrian uprising that the Baath regime could weather the gathering storm of a circumscribed popular revolt without a fatal damage provided it took, on due time, the appropriate actions. And I can say again that had the Syrian political leadership seized upon the historic opportunity of the Arab Spring to initiate serious political reforms, its survival, in one form or another, could have been almost guaranteed. Such perspective was all the more possible then given the strong popular base the regime initially enjoyed among the urban middle classes of Damascus and Aleppo as revealed by the loyalty of traditional business elites, the country’s sizable religious minorities, not to speak of the army’s strong attachment, and, last but not least, the support and the sympathy of its international backers.
Its relationships with its neighbors, Turkey in particular, seemed excellent at the time, and its rapports with the West were slowly but steadily improving. With perhaps the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, the regime’s relations with the Gulf States appeared then also to be overall positive. Qatar was even considered one of the regime’s main allies in the region and a strong financial supporter.
Most of these strategic assets and precious alliances were lost, in matters of weeks, due to the Syrian regime shortsightedness and utter recklessness. The brutal response with which it met an uprising that came along a revolutionary turmoil gripping the whole region was, in many respects, morally misguided and politically unwarranted. Admittedly at the very start of the Syrian revolt, from Rabat to Cairo and from Tunis to Sana’a to Manama, Arab youth were already descending, in droves, to the streets every day, with the same slogans everywhere, expressing the same legitimate grievances every time, venting the same resentment and frustration over and over, against the same old authoritarian and morally bankrupt regimes, more than ever out of touch with their times, and the aspirations and dreams of their people.
Instead of taking note of the timely historical context of the events and responding accordingly to the legitimate demands of his revolting people, Assad’s initial response was a hysterical denial. Like Ghadaffi before, he went on to stupidly repeat the same old mantra that Syria was neither Egypt nor Tunisia. Unlike king Mohamed VI of Morocco who proactively tried to preempt the revolutionary momentum, gathering dust in his country, by at least acceding to certain urgent public demands, Bashar, for his part, unleashed an overwhelmingly disproportionate military response hoping to subdue the will of his people by force, as usual; but rather than subsiding, in scale or intensity, what was initially a peaceful and geographically circumscribed popular revolt gradually evolved to become a nationwide uncontrollable armed insurrection.
A tragic turn of events made all the more acute by the regime’s overall recklessness which was quickly seized upon by its powerful traditional foes who infiltrated, with their personal aims in mind, the opposition in exile; aims far removed from the desires of the Syrian people. Hence, the lukewarm reception by the opposition, from the beginning, of the very idea of mediation promoted, albeit clumsily, by the Arab League’s first envoys, and subsequently carried on, to no avail, by the UN and Arab envoy Koffi Anan. This sort of implicit rejection of any kind of mediation and constant intransigence reeks of obvious external manipulation. It has also the disadvantage of reinforcing the regime’s illusion that its best chance for survival lies in its reliance on brute force, and the undue the support of its powerful traditional allies: China and Russia.
As was, alas, the case with the immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz in Tunisia, it was the fatal and gruesome torture of Hamza Khatib, a young schoolboy kidnapped by the security forces for writing a graffiti, that would be the straw breaking the back of the Syrian police state. The very idea that an innocent toddler could be arrested and viciously mutilated for simply scribbling few words on a wall is, in itself, indicative of the vicious nature of the Syrian regime and its deeply ingrained Stalinist mentality.
It is indeed very sad to helplessly witness the destructive ravages brought upon Syria these days, like its neighboring Iraq, by the reckless actions of a clan-based, mafia-like leadership that manipulated people’s nationalist sentiments and patriotism to perpetuate the tyranny of a small circle of uncouth tribal-minded cynics. Who could have thought, half a century ago, that Syria or Iraq would become the wrecks they are now, or to paraphrase Rami Khouri, the posters children of Arab statehood’s bankruptcy?
Deeply steeped in history with impressive cultural legacies, naturally endowed with fertile lands, sophisticated urban classes, talented elites, geostrategic locations, countries such as Syria and Iraq could have become, by now, regional economic powerhouses and perhaps models of political stability and institutional democracy but the overbearing burden of narrow-minded ideologies, compounded with the scourge of shortsighted leaders and pervasive foreign intermingling, led them to a catastrophic standstill. Sometimes, it seems as though plain misfortune constitutes in itself a modern Arab curse.
It is so painful to notice that at the time where some countries, still only few generations away from near primitivism and now at the cutting edge of progress, the Oriental Jewels of Arab-Islamic civilization are sinking in the abyss of anarchy at the hands of their own sons. Yet despite this gloomy prospect Arabs should not give in to despair and helplessness. They should remind themselves that there is always a flicker of hope as ever epitomized by the audacity of will of Tahrir Square.
Therefore, with the unbreakable will of the Syrian people there is no denying that justice will ultimately triumph over tyranny.
In fact, with the help of the international community, through the constructive involvement of all the major stakeholders of the crisis, namely the permanent members of the UNSC plus Turkey, Saudi Arabia and maybe Iran, a reasonable solution can still be found for this tragic impasse. Assad’s immediate resignation should be the first step in that direction followed by the formation of a transitional government led by a neutral and credible political personality. Then, representatives of the regime and the opposition, from within and in exile, could sit at the table of negotiation to work out the details of a peaceful political settlement. Critical elements, and potential bones of contention, such as the drafting of a new constitution, the organization of free and fair elections, the restructuring of the armed forces should be dealt with during this transitional process before any agreement is finalized. But before that, a necessary and urgent prerequisite should be an immediate cease-fire that will definitely put an end to the bloodshed and gradually pave the way for a political compromise.
In the future Syria government policies should be determined by the elected representatives of a political majority and not the inner circle or entourage of a self-appointed autocrat. But the constitutional framework that will ultimately guarantee power for a political majority should also inevitably include provisions for the guarantee and protection of the legitimate rights of minorities, for without such legal safeguards Syria will just trade one tyrannical system for another one. And it would be another disgrace for the Arab world if Syrian Alawite or Christians were forced to relive the nightmarish ordeals of Iraqi Sunnis or Libyan tribes!
Given the extent of the tragedy now this may well sound like some naïve wishful-thinking but there is no denying that the alternative will far worse.
Finally it’s now of the utmost urgency that the US and Russia agree as soon as possible on a consensual formula, such as a UNSC resolution, whereby they could compel the belligerents in this fratricide conflict to put an immediate end to the fighting and initiate, through peaceful dialog, a process of political transition. Although the regime that detains the reign of power bears morally and legally the brunt of the ongoing tragedy, the attitude of the opposition in exile, due to its lack of internal cohesiveness and political wit, has been all along unhelpful, if not outright reckless and obstructive. It would have been indeed more perceptive from the part of the opposition to constructively engage, from the outset, the Russians so as to assuage their fears of regime change and steer them away from Assad and his henchmen.
A written commitment of mutual engagement, in the form of a duly agreed upon bilateral protocol, aimed at preserving Russia’s vital national interests in Syria would have perhaps given Putin the assurances needed to prevent him from desperately sidelining with the regime in a such intrusively destructive manner.
In so doing the opposition could have preserved Syria’s longtime strategic ties with Russia bearing in mind that the major threat it would potentially face stems primarily from its Israeli neighbor that still illegally occupies its land. In any case the guiding criteria for any strategic move or choice should have been, at any time, the common good of the Syrian people, which doesn’t necessarily lie in the compulsive desire of the opposition to systematically conquer power, much less its indulgence to please the whims of a foreign power.
- Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.