Given our severely short attention span, it is quite easy to forget how the Syrian uprisings started sixteen months ago. Many Syrians were encouraged by regional popular movements for citizenship rights and dignity – as well as economic and social justice – and so decided to rise up against the totalitarian father-to-son regime that had ruled and overruled them with unremitting authoritarianism for more than four decades. The Assad family, surrounded by thousands of acolytes and many more security services, was doing its best to keep Syria under the thumb of its self-appointed elite.
Nothing new here, when one looks at other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria or elsewhere, the reality that often prevailed was one demanding utter submission to the “ruler” for anything from the simplest request to the most ambitious venture. Whether it had to do with large-scale corruption on the one hand or wholesale rights-based infringements on the other, the people were parked behind multiple walls of fear.
But that wall has been broken: one leader fled the country, another abdicated the presidency and was later sentenced to life imprisonment, a third was killed brutally and a fourth played it safe – some would add cleverly – by signing a piece of paper and then continuing his life without the sobriquet of president.
“Pit the Sunnis against the Alawites, Christians and – to a lesser extent – the Kurds or Druze, let them fight each other out and then step in as the sole saviour who could redeem the country.“
Divide and conquer
But Syria was – still is – different. As the peaceful demonstrations started across the country, many factors came into play. The military and intelligence services, as well as their hired thugs, kicked into action almost immediately. In a classic Hobbesian case of violence over reason, they applied the customary and even not-so-customary methods of torture in order to nip the protests in the bud – horrendous methods that we in the West have fortunately put behind us after suffering their consequences in our own history. But those methods no longer succeeded in quelling the peaceful demonstrations – and in fact fuelled them further.
So the regime pulled out the sectarian and confessional cards: pit the Sunni against the Alawites, Christians and – to a lesser extent – the Kurds or Druze, let them fight each other out and then step in as the sole saviour who could redeem the country from further fratricidal violence and destabilisation. Another classic case of divide et impera – divide and conquer – that Julius Caesar had thought of well before our modern times. However, those methods no longer cut any mustard with the Syrian protesters on the streets. Nonetheless, the tetchy nature of the Syrian opposition and its proclivity to squabble with each other meant that the regime still retained a large measure of control.
Those Syrians fighting for their basic rights were hoping for some concrete assistance from the world powers. But much of the outside world was fearful about what lay beyond Assad, and so what we saw were the episodic, scripted and largely defunct performances at the UN Security Council, coupled with a somehow vocal League of Arab States that has nonetheless failed to impose its will upon an erstwhile member.
The lesser evil
In the meantime, while the veto-wielding powers honed the art of diplomatic gridlock, many Syrians were getting poorer, hungrier, angrier and yet more resolute to challenge death with all its painful odds. Too much blood had been spilt for either party to simply back down.
This is when the largely peaceful protesters turned a critical page: they succumbed to their frustrations and forsook their irenic aspirations – almost painfully baying for the top heads of the regime – and as such exposed themselves to all sorts of political and religious influences. Some of the peaceful protests became violent, the secular forces were overshadowed by radicalised influences and a militant posture led inevitably to military confrontations that culminated in the Damascene assassinations earlier this week. The teachings of non-violent resistance by eminent critical Muslim scholars such as Syrian Sheikh Jawdat Sa’eed were being inexorably replaced by a foreboding sense of urgent violence.
Who is to blame for this horrible imbroglio in a most distinctive heartland of the Arab world?
It is facile to point the finger exclusively at the Ba’athist regime, whose powerful tentacles have controlled Syria with sheer impunity since 1970. After all, a wounded Lebanon remains its livid testimony. It is also quite easy to suggest that Iran, Russia and even China or Hezbollah are propping up the regime and its outrageous excesses for their own self-serving and short-term interests. While this is quite true, it is equally true that we in the west are far from helpless bystanders. We too have contributed to the present Syrian nightmare with our double-speak, political timidity and diplomatic conservatism.
We have witnessed the massacres and slaughters that remind us of the barbarism that occurred in our own backyard in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – and yet we found the legal and diplomatic justifications not to exercise the principle of R2P, enforce our willpower or overstep the veiled niceties and palliative statements of the UN. We have been proactive and reactive in almost equal degree, so much so that one question is to ask what we – and, crucially, our regional allies – really want today?
Looking at Syria from Europe, it is almost too trite to write that change is imminent. After all, the road ahead remains bumpy, unsure and bloody, and it is the Syrians alone who will eventually overwhelm the stench of totalitarianism. But that is only the first step on a long road toward state-building.
So what will eventually replace the Assad era? How long are the memories of those Syrians who now feel betrayed by many parties? How will Israel, Iran, Hezbollah or other actors react to the new uncertainties that were born after the blasts in Damascus? What will be the role of the world community in ensuring that the country does not implode and splinter into small enclaves – or that its lethal weapons do not fall into unsafe hands? Ironically, how will we prevent the Lebanonisation of Syria as much as the impact of the Syrian civil war upon Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – to name only three neighbouring countries?
Perhaps those questions impute a modicum of collective guilt towards Syria. But they also underline the need for all key players to put their political solipsism aside and address the much larger picture. After all, and whilst we know that the Assad dynasty simply cannot survive forever, we must also ensure that it does not end up spawning a whole series of frightening little Assad-like clones too.
Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region.