Syria: the west can shorten Syrian regime’s deadly campaign
The west could do more to help Syrian protesters and hasten the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad, says Middle East expert Amir Taheri
When they started protest marches, Syrians were asking for change within the regime. Six weeks and hundreds of deaths later, they are asking for regime change. Last week, which culminated in what was designated as a “Friday of Rage“, provided indicators to where Syriamight be heading. President Bashar al-Assad’s decision to “crush“, rather than try to accommodate, the opposition has backfired.
Initially limited to urban youths, the uprising has found an echo in all sections of society. Syrians are shocked by images of what Assad’s special forces are doing in the “occupied” cities of Deraa and Douma. There, human corpses remain in the streets in violation of the Islamic rule that the dead be buried within 24 hours. Until the “invasion” of Deraa and Douma, several political, ethnic and religious groups had kept their distance from the uprising. Now, almost everyone is on board.
Kurds, accounting for 15 per cent of the population, are calling for an end to one-party rule. Having watched the uprising with a mixture of envy and fascination, the Muslim Brotherhood has decided to join. The Druze minority have organised “solidarity marches with the martyrs”. Other communities, including Assyrian Christians and Turcomans, are also abandoning the regime. A petition signed by dozens of writers and academics from all ethnic groups, shows that the uprising is above sectarian considerations.
Until Friday, the country’s two most populous cities, Aleppo and Damascus, the capital, had remained relatively calm. That changed with marchers defying the tanks in both places. Even the Arab Socialist Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party, officially ruling the country, may no longer be as solid. Over 300 party members have resigned and publicly condemned the crackdown. Party offices in several cities, including Banias and Latakia, have been closed. Several trade unions, theoretically controlled by the Ba’ath party, have indicated support for the uprising with token stoppages in the oil and transport sectors.
The army’s loyalty, too, may no longer be certain. One unit of the elite 4th Armoured Division has reportedly refused deployment in Muazzamiyah, a suburb of Damascus. The army and the regime’s armed security forces lack the manpower to occupy major cities for a long time. Soon, they could face problems of rotation. In any case, this is an army of recruits who may end up sympathising with protesters they are ordered to kill. In Banias people are offering flowers and sweets to soldiers and asking why should recruits kill their people for a distant despot?
Believing that the days of the regime are numbered, some Syrians have started leaving the country. Hundreds have fled to Lebanon and Iraq. A stream of refugees, mostly from the Haruran area, continues to Jordan. Money is also flowing away. A Lebanese banker with ties to the Assads tells us that “some cowards” are sending their money to “safer places”.
Unable to propose a political solution, Assad has boxed himself into a corner. He must either fight his way out or prepare to die there. This is bad news for Syria which may face weeks, if not months, of deadly struggle. The Western powers could help shorten that period. They should call for Assad’s departure as they did in the cases of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya.
The British Foreign Office is deluding itself by insisting that Assad is a closet reformer who ought to be helped against unspecified hardliners. William Hague would do well to side with the pro-democracy movement against a despotic regime whose sell-by date is long past. A message that Assad cannot hope to massacre his people and then return to privileged relations with the West would persuade many to abandon him.
Although dominated by the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs, the army’s officer corps includes many from the Sunni majority who might not be prepared to massacre their co-religionists. Even Defence Minister Ali Habib and Chief of Staff Davoud Rajha might switch sides. As the biggest foreign investor and aid donor, the European Union wields immense influence in Damascus, especially among the 100 or so wealthy Sunni families who help keep the economy afloat. A suspension of Syria’s privileged trade relations with the EU would exert immense pressure.
Nato should intercede with Turkey to stop arms shipments from Iran to Syria. Last month, the Turks stopped one shipment, as a token gesture. However, the mullahs continue to send arms via Turkey to Syria and the Lebanese Hizbollah. The UN should provide relief for refugees arriving in Iraq and Jordan. An unknown number of wounded people need to be evacuated from Deraa.
Despite Russia’s dilatory shenanigans, the West should continue to press for UN help to stop the massacre of civilians in Syria. Aid organisations should be helped to deploy to provide medical, and other services. Western democracies must also open a dialogue with the Syrian opposition to understand its grievances and assess its aspirations. Finally, the West should be patient and not expect a regime that has ruled by terror for half a century to evaporate in a few days.
Amir Taheri is the author of books on the Middle East, Iran and Islam. His new book, The Kingdom of Allah, will be published this summer.