Thursday, September 1, 2011

A familiar road to nowhere as good intentions falter in Syria

In his influential book Deliver Us From Evil, published in 2000, the British author William Shawcross chronicled the frequent disconnect between the ambitions of the international community to resolve political and humanitarian crises in the 1990s and the shortcomings of implementation. From Cambodia to Bosnia to Somalia to Rwanda and beyond, prominent states acting through the United Nations often promised too much and did too little.

In Syria, both the Arab world and the broader international community have promised little and, until recently, done even less. For five months the regime of President Bashar Al Assad has been slaughtering its population at will, with over 2,000 people said to have been killed, although the figure does not include the disappeared who are feared dead. Many thousands more have been arrested. The UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently observed that a fact-finding mission had "found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity" under the statute of the International Criminal Court.

Despite this, only last weekend did the Arab League criticise Damascus. The organisation issued a statement calling for an end to the bloodshed, and then announced that its secretary general, Nabil Al Arabi, would meet Mr Al Assad and discuss an Arab initiative, whose details were not revealed. Syria's delegate reacted furiously to the statement, which apparently had not been agreed beforehand, saying his government would behave as if it never had taken place.

Syria's isolation is growing. Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, remarked at the weekend that his government had "lost confidence" in the Assad regime. Even stalwart Syrian allies Iran and Hizbollah have advised Mr Al Assad to consider his people's demands. However, for months the United Nations Security Council has failed to agree to a resolution on Syria because of Russian and Chinese opposition. Moscow is now drafting a text of its own, largely because its position has become untenable amid the bloodletting. However, the Russians also hope to offset a stronger resolution that the Europeans and Americans have been preparing that imposes sanctions on Syria.

Syria is a black mark on international integrity and foresight. Whether by action or omission, Arab countries, Turkey, the United States and European powers all handed Mr Al Assad the latitude he needed to crush the revolt. Only when he could not do so did we hear rumbles of discontent, accompanied by further dallying. The Turkish government, which is reluctant to push too hard because of fears of a Syrian vacuum, recently gave Mr Al Assad valuable additional time to effect reforms; he pursued his repression. Washington remains wary of Syria, preferring to allow the Arabs and Turkey to take the lead. The Russians have just issued a two-week extension to Mr Al Assad to introduce change. Expect more death, arrests and disillusionment.

Shawcross described how extensively crises during the 1990s reduced the vigour with which states managed subsequent crises, stretching the limited resources of the UN. The conflict in Libya, like the convulsions in other Arab countries, prompted many governments to steer clear of involvement in Syria. However, it was always plain that the carnage could have dire repercussions on the Middle East if not dealt with at the right moment. That's why Arab and international concern with Syria today may be too little too late.

There never was a doubt that the Assad regime would respond to the Syrian intifada by employing sectarian reflexes. Whatever the laudable goals of the multi-sectarian opposition, Syria's leadership from the start saw the demonstrations as a threat to Alawite primacy, and conducted itself accordingly. For instance, when countering the protests in Deraa last March, the Assads swiftly deployed praetorian units under the control of Maher Al Assad, the president's brother.

To many Alawites, what is taking place is a zero-sum game. For a minority that has ruled Syria since 1966 - and with an even harsher hand since 1970 - Alawite domination is not something over which there can be compromise. If those in the streets triumph, Mr Al Assad and his loyalists know, they will dismantle the current structure of power. Alawites view the intifada in existential terms, blind to the fact that their ferocity only threatens their community's existence more.

There was no excuse for outside actors to ignore how such dynamics might destabilise Syria's neighbours. Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon all have mixed ethnic-religious societies. The violence visited on Syrians by the Assads has the potential to bring on sectarian civil war that spreads beyond the country's borders, undermining communal relations elsewhere. If that does not pose a threat to international peace and security, nothing does. And yet the Arab League, the United Nations, the United States and the Europeans have all failed to devise a political plan to bring about a peaceful transition in Damascus.

The silence surrounding the Arab proposal, as well as the haste with which it was put together, are worrisome. At the best of times the Arab League is a futile body. With Mr Al Assad having lost all legitimacy and the near impossibility that Syria will return to where it was six months ago, there is no alternative to the president's exit. However, Arab regimes, sturdy agents of sovereignty, are by tradition hostile to backing changes of leadership. Yet unless this happens, the situation in Syria will fester and prospects for a generalised conflict will rise.

That the situation in Syria is taking centre stage in regional anxieties is a good thing. But it may not be enough. Having waited for too long to act, without a cohesive strategy, and divided by clashing agendas, foreign actors are ill placed to contain the Syrian emergency. That means more devastation until the rotting fruit of Assad rule falls.

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