The numbers tell an alarming tale: In less than two years, more than 60,000 have died in Syria. Since August 2012, more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed every month, a rate of almost 170 per day. The international community looks on helplessly as UN special representative and Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi submits draft proposals and presidents and prime ministers mouth fine words … And still, the civil war grinds on, with its daily reports of atrocities and manipulation. Amid the confusion, we must bear in mind several basic principles before attempting to draw conclusions. Now is not the time for naiveté and illusion.
Bashar Al Assad heads a dictatorial regime founded on usurpation and corruption, a regime that has never hesitated — dating from his late father’s decade-long rule — to kill and torture its opponents by the tens of thousands. Terror has become domestic policy. Syria’s role in Lebanon, where it sponsored a complex web of alliances and exploited internal divisions, has been a murky one at best. On the Israeli front, while it stands accused of indiscriminately supporting Palestinian resistance groups, Syria has provided successive leaders in Tel Aviv with a “useful enemy”. Beneath its stern and sometimes fiery rhetoric, the Syrian government has been curiously passive, even following direct attack by Israel, as when an alleged nuclear facility was destroyed in September 2007.
Syria, alongside Iran, is presented as an enemy of western interests; as a country that cannot be trusted and from which the worst is to be expected. However, when Syrians began to take to the streets and when civilians were dying in their hundreds at the hands of the regular army, it took the American administration and European governments more than eight months to change their tune — and their Syria policies. The courage and the determination of the Syrian population did not reflect western plans and interests in the region. For more than eight months, the US and Europe did little more than call upon Al Assad to undertake “democratic” reforms.
With uprisings breaking out in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen; with tensions running high in Jordan and Bahrain and with the growing power of Iran looming on the horizon, the West played for time and sought reliable interlocutors within the quarrelsome and divided Syrian opposition. At the same time, Russia and China pursued their strategic offensive. Both countries have a growing geostrategic and economic profile in the region and both were sharply critical of the intervention in Libya, where a UN resolution provided all the pretext the western powers needed to eliminate Muammar Gaddafi and take over the country’s natural resources. However, none of the protagonists had the stomach for a replay of the Libyan scenario in Syria.
American and European positions have shifted in recent months, while pressure against the Syrian government has increased. Official support for the Syrian opposition and Free Syrian Army (FSA) has firmed up. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have emerged as full participants, directly financing and arming the political and military opposition. Neighbouring Turkey altered its “no problems with neighbours” policy to one of active support for regime change in Damascus. Beijing and Moscow, meanwhile, continued to back Al Assad (while hinting that they might contemplate a future without him). Painfully, laboriously, all the pieces on the chessboard have been manoeuvred into place to create a stalemate. Neither a political or a military outcome seems possible; the civil war drags on and the number of deaths grows day by day.
In American terminology, Syria has become the theatre of a regional “low-intensity conflict,” under control and, cynically, more useful than harmful. The dividends may prove substantial in both the short and long term. The Middle East is deeply destabilised and sharply divided on many fronts. Politically, the tension between secularists and Islamists remains high; divisions among the Sunnis themselves are tangible (Salafist literalists, reformists, Salafist jihadists, etc.) and the fracture between Sunnis and Shiites has emerged as one of the key factors in the volatile Middle Eastern equation.
To this explosive brew must be added political alliances, old and new: The non-democratic and pro-western Gulf states, the changing face of power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, instability in Iraq and Lebanon and finally, the ostracism of Iran. The Middle East is in the throes of crisis and the West, like China and Russia (not to mention Turkey and India) are attempting to reposition themselves and to protect their economic and geostrategic interests.
The shift in focus of tensions has worked to Israel’s advantage: The country is going through a domestic crisis, but the weakening and division of the Arab countries allow Israel’s American ally to maintain and reinforce cooperation and coordination, and for the Israeli regime to pursue unhindered its inexorable colonisation of Palestinian lands.
We can — and must — oppose the autocratic regime of Al Assad, but without falling into the trap of oversimplifying the conflict or of blind support for the resistance. The Syrian opposition, by virtue of its structure, does not inspire confidence. Several of its allies, judging by their declared and undeclared intentions, are outright dangerous. In the face of growing confusion, we must combine a principled position (opposition to the dictatorship) with political analysis and vigilance that leaves no room for naivete (unconditional support for the opposition). The West, China and Russia appear to have agreed in the short term to disagree, a cynicism the Syrians will pay for with their lives. Worst of all, no viable alternative exists, no other solution except that imposed by force of arms. The conflict will be long and bitter; thousands more will die. Once freed of the despot, it is far from certain that the Syrian people will be free of foreign domination. In fact, the opposite seems by far the most probable outcome.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.