As the Syrian revolution is about to enter its third year, a political solution to the crisis remains as remote as ever. The regime has so far locked itself in a state of denial as it continues to claim that it is fighting a global conspiracy aiming at destroying ‘the axis of resistance’. This conspiracy is executed by transnational terrorist organisations, most notably Al Qaida. Whether this argument makes sense or not, it lets the Syrian regime justify the use of deadly force, including medium range Scud missiles, against its own people.
The opposition, on the other hand, remains as politically naive as it ever; believing that its regional and international allies have a real interest in the success of the Syrian revolution. The opposition is yet to accept the fact that the West is interested only in protecting its most basic interests rather than establishing democracy or stopping the shedding of Syrian blood. It will also have to cease calling upon President Bashar Al Assad to step down and look for other ways to force him to do so.
In fact, the positions of the regime, the opposition, and the regional and international actors with interest in Syria have not changed much since the early days of the revolution. The reason for that might simply lie in the fact that nobody was really prepared to deal with a problem of such magnitude and fraught with complications because nobody had expected the Syrian people to ever revolt against Al Assad’s regime in the first place. The failure to spot signs of a brewing storm led to disastrous consequences.
The regime in Damascus thought that it was immune to revolution. Merely six weeks before the uprising, Al Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country is very unlikely to go through the turmoil that hit Tunisia and Egypt because the foreign policy of his country had tremendous support among Syrians.
“If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this ... We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but inspite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas,” Al Assad said.
Indeed, this line of argument helped explain the protest movement in terms of foreign conspiracy, but that proved to be another fatal mistake. Instead of bowing to popular pressure for reform, Al Assad decided to punish those who dared revolt against his political and economic policies.
By using deadly force to suppress the uprising from the very beginning, Al Assad was wittingly turning peaceful demonstrators into armed militias, fighting not only to bring his regime down but also to protect their lives, honour and properties. Furthermore, by getting his own sect — the Alawites — to commit heinous crimes against their Sunni brethren, he prepared the ground for a full-fledged civil war and drew in jihadists from all over the world to take part in a conflict that is increasingly turning sectarian.
Grand sectarian war
Given the inhomogeneous societies of the Levant, Al Assad’s intention might be to get the region involved in a grand sectarian war. To survive, he may even decide to play his final card — starting a regional war. On several occasions, he threatened to set the whole region on fire should his regime collapse. His arsenal of Scud missiles with approximately 700 warheads can hit deep inside Turkey. His arsenal of chemical weapons is also frightening and, should he approach the end of his political life, he might choose to use it. This is what many dub as the Samson Option — the choice in the absence of choices.
This was Al Assad’s strategy and intention as he faced the much unexpected revolution. So what was the opposition’s? The opposition’s response to the revolution was pathetic, to say the least. Having been absolutely illiterate about the regional and international context, it called for foreign military intervention that would never come.
The opposition also estimated that the regime would collapse in a matter of weeks or months under pressure from peaceful demonstrators. It underestimated the regime’s determination to fight and misjudged the US and the Russian positions. The inability of the opposition to provide reliable leadership for the revolution is also prolonging the life of the regime and presenting those who are looking for excuses for not supporting the revolution with what they need.
All in all, Syria is paying today the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.