The Syrian crisis: a way to go yet – by Amin Saikal

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 13 septembre 2011

The Syrian government of president Bashar al-Assad has persistently ignored international condemnation of its bloody crackdown on opposition since mid-March.

It has dismissed the latest assertion by the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, that « the Syrian regime has committed crimes against humanity », and has insisted that it is dealing only with « armed gangs » in order to protect Syrian citizens.

However, there is now at last a credible report by a UN investigative team – the first to be allowed in by the Syrian authorities – that concludes: « There is an urgent need to protect [Syrian] civilians from the excessive use of force [by the Syrian regime]. » What stands in the way of the US and its allies providing such protection?

The case of Assad’s regime is far more complex and difficult to address than that of Colonel Moamar Gaddafi of Libya. Syria is neither a terribly oil-rich country, nor easily accessible for intervention under the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’, which the UN Security Council invoked to legitimise a no-troops-on-the-ground military campaign against Gaddafi’s rule.

The Assad dictatorship has proved to be as brutal, if not more, as that of Gaddafi. It has reportedly already killed some 2,200 people, injured and displaced many thousands more, creating both a national humanitarian emergency and outflow of refugees, especially to Turkey and Lebanon, on a scale that does not fall much short of what Gaddafi’s rule did for a month prior to the commencement of NATO’s operations on March 19.

There are primarily four factors at work in helping to sustain the Assad dictatorship.

The first is the sectarian nature of Syria, where, since the seizure of power by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in a military coup in 1970, the 10 per cent minority Alawites have succeeded in ruling the rest of the predominantly Sunni Muslim population. Based on a rather vague shared sectarian affiliation, but firm common strategic interests, this Alawite minority has forged an unshakable alliance with Iran’s largely Shi’ite Islamic regime. Both sides have strongly opposed Israel and backed the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah against the Jewish state, although for different reasons. Damascus’s enmity arises from Israel’s occupation of Syria’s strategic Golan Heights since 1967, and expedient support of the Palestinian cause. Tehran’s opposition is more grounded in ideological and regional strategic considerations, and an enduring enmity with the United States. The Alawites are fully aware that if they lose power, they could lose everything, and therefore are expected to do whatever it takes to crush any opposition, as they have done over the last four decades.

The second is the strategic value of the Assad regime in the regional balance of power. Its fall could easily result in a substantial weakening of the regional strategic gains that Iran has made over the last decade, largely because of its skilful exploitation of American failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon as well as on the Israeli/Palestinian front. The Assad regime links Iran to Hezbollah and provides it an entry to the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. As such, it enables it to encircle Israel as a counter to America’s encirclement of Iran. This regional balance seems to be favoured by Russia and China, which have lucrative trade and military deals with Damascus and Tehran, especially the latter, and are not averse to the idea of having leverage vis-a-vis America’s historical geopolitical dominance in the region.

The third is that while most Sunni-dominated Arab states would be happy to see the back of the Assad regime and the waning of Iran’s influence, they are uncertain about its consequences. They do not want any development that could aggravate the highly confessionalised and conflict-prone political situation in Lebanon and strengthen the position of Israel as well as Turkey, which has now become a leading player in the region.

The fourth is that the US and its NATO allies have repeatedly made it clear that they have neither the resources nor the necessary geo-strategic incentives to intervene in Syria similar to their Libyan military campaign.

Given this, Tehran can be expected to remain fully committed to the Assad regime and to bail it out to the tune of billions of dollars from its growing oil revenue. Similarly, Russia and China are set to expediently continue to resist tougher sanctions, including an arms embargo, against Damascus at the UN Security Council.

The Assad regime has good reason to remain confident about its survival despite all its brutalities against its own people. Its power and authority have for long been based on exclusion and suppression. It has promised reforms, and latest figure to receive such a promise is the head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, who visited Damascus over the weekend. However, it is highly doubtful that it will ever find it in its interest to engage in anything more than cosmetic changes. What the opposition wants is the end of the Assad regime and therefore structural changes.

This requires a favourable change in regional and international circumstances, which does not seem to be around the corner yet. The regional country that can exert possibly a determining pressure on Damascus is Turkey. Whilst condemning the Syrian regime’s behaviour and treating Syrian refugees humanely, it is careful not to do anything which could jeopardise its good relations with Iran and reinforce an Arab perception that it seeks wider regional influence.

Amin Saikal is Professor of Political Science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.