In November 1998, during an official visit to Damascus, I met President Hafez al-Assad. And in 2006, again on an official visit there, I met his son, President Bashar al-Assad. The difference between the two men was palpable.
Al- Assad, the father, was the quintessential symbol of stability and status quo, the bedrock upon which rested the whole of the Arab struggle for a Palestinian state and their resistance to the West’s “imperial designs”. Those high ideals were enough to justify the brutal suppression of dissent and opposition.
The son espoused the transition to a moderate, open and free Syrian society. Those ideals were so desirable that many gave him the benefit of the doubt, remained patient and forgiving so that he could “overcome the old guard resistance” that he inherited.
Anatomy of a revolution
This is what I took away from my meetings with those two men and the people I talked to during those two visits.
This month is the third year that the first shots of the Syrian rebellion emerged in the remote town of Daraa, near the Jordanian border. Since then it has spread to all possible corners of the country leaving behind death, total destruction and mayhem. There are countless injured, 150,000 dead, 10 times that many refugees, and millions more displaced and hopeless.
The question on everyone’s mind is: Is there an end to this nightmare? To answer that question, one needs to look into the anatomy of this conflict. Are the causes of its eruption still relevant, who were the main players and who are they now, what are the interests still in conflict, and what needs to be done to move forward?
Three factors have contributed to the formation and eruption of the conflict in Syria.
First, there was the overall spirit and atmosphere of the Arab Spring. Syria could not have avoided the wave that began in Tunisia in December 2010.
Second, there was the deep-seated resentment and disenchantment among the overwhelmingly majority in the country. Forty years of tight-fisted authoritarian rule by a small minority had left deep scars and any opportunity for a transition, even at a high cost, clearly would have been seized in earnest. Such an attempt was made in the early 1980s in the city of Hama and was brutally suppressed by Hafiz al-Assad with minimum international outrage.
Third, was the coincidence of the interests of the major global and regional powers with the goal of regime change in Syria. The axis comprising Iran, Hezbollah, Syria as well as the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was increasingly becoming a major national security concern, for the United States and its Western allies, also to Israel, Turkey and the Gulf states, primary among them, Saudi Arabia.
Arab Spring gone sour
Three years forward, none of those conditions are the same. On the contrary. The arousing and spiriting scent of the Arab Spring has not only dissipated but also turned sour and bitter for all who experienced the uproar and euphoria. From Tunisia to Egypt, the populace has still to feel a change in their living standards and level of safety, freedom and emancipation.
Two is, if given a choice today in Syria between immediate security, peace and stability with Assad at the helm and a protracted conflict with an unknown future, even if assured a no-Assad outcome, even the most disenchanted Sunnis would probably go with Assad.
Two is if given a choice today in Syria, between immediate security, peace and stability with Assad at the helm and a protracted conflict with an unknown future, even if assured a no-Assad outcome, even the most disenchanted Sunnis would probably go with Assad.
Finally and most importantly, there is a change in the way the global and regional powers are assessing the situation globally, regionally and domestically. To begin with they had miscalculated the speed and ease with which al- Assad regime would fall. The regime’s, Russia’s and Iran’s (together with Hezbollah’s) resolve proved to be far superior to that of the West’s half-hearted support and ill-designed policies.
Furthermore, the penetration and proliferation of violent extremist organisations within Syria is now being viewed as more threatening to Western interests than al- Assad regime. Finally, Iran’s turnabout on its nuclear issue and the emerging hopes for an acceptable outcome for all tamed anti-Iran emotions and sentiments, somehow diluting the danger of so-called Shia dominance in the region.
Arab politics for beginners?
As I was growing up in my hometown Aleppo, we had a saying which best captured the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and societies. If you think you understand Arab politics, that means someone hasn’t explained it well. The situation in Syria today with a variety of dimensions in interplay, mostly overlapping and often deflecting, makes that adage an understatement.
From Day one of the Syrian conflict, three possible scenarios for its eventual outcome were floated and discussed. An outright win for al- Assad regime; an overwhelming victory for the rebels; a weakened Assad regime, where a negotiated arrangement for a transitional government leading to final regime change, would be possible.
The viability of any of these scenarios alternated throughout the past three years depending on the circumstances on the ground and beyond. Right after the December 2011 bombing of the intelligence agency compounds in the heart of Damascus killing 44 people in the first suicide attack since the uprising began, the fall of the regime seemed only a matter of time. Prior to the Geneva talks, the impression was that a negotiated outcome would be possible.
Today, after the capture of Yabroud, it seems the balance has firmly anchored toward the regime. This oscillation could go on and on.
The Syrian people have suffered enough. It is time that those countries that hold the Syrian people hostage to their own interests acknowledge their failures, stop their intervention and let the Syrian people determine their own future.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.