Opinion | Columnists

With or without Al Assad, Syria’s future is bleak

Following in-country investigations and interviews, experts feel that what began as the people’s struggle for political pluralism has morphed into a conflict that is ‘overtly sectarian in nature’

  • By Linda S. Heard | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 December 25, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Toppling dictators is the main staple of the ‘Arab Spring’ that on hindsight was grossly misnamed. In theory, autocratic rulers using oppression to ensure their dynastic lines have no place in the 21st century. Across the region, courageous individuals have sacrificed their blood to free their country from decades of authoritarianism, only to find that they were worse off than before. In part, this is due to the unleashing of formerly suppressed enmities and opportunistic Islamist organisations seeking to supplant budding democracy with theocracy.

In Libya, armed militias terrorise Libyan cities and launch revenge attacks, even as the interior ministry struggles to maintain law and order. The potential for Benghazi to secede remains.

Tunisia is wracked by political and social divisions. Workers demanding better pay and conditions call for strikes, while hard line Islamist groups demanding an Islamist state have attacked hotels, bars and Jewish communities.

For the first time ever, Egypt has become a breeding ground for festering hatred between Islamists and liberals with opposing ambitions and visions that, in the worst case scenarios, could erupt into civil war or a military takeover.

Iraq is another example. The smashing of Saddam Hussain’s iron fist resulted in bloody sectarian clashes between Sunnis and Shiites as well as terrorist attacks that spiked this summer. So far, the only beneficiaries of the Arab Spring have been extremists and Al Qaida offshoots that feed on chaos, division and social unrest.

Will Syria be the exception that proves the rule once its president comes to terms with his fate?

Bashar Al Assad’s days in office are numbered. He forfeited all vestiges of legitimacy by converting entire neighbourhoods into Doomsday movie sets. Millions have been forced to flee from their homes; hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Aleppo’s residents are starving. Hospital beds are filled with children whose bodies have been shattered by cluster bombs.

He is a marked man. The majority of Syrians want him gone as do most of his former Arab allies and almost all Western powers. Under Moscow’s self-interested protection, he is hanging on by his fingernails, but even Vladamir Putin has reached the conclusion that Al Assad’s exit is inevitable. “We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Al Assad regime; we realise what’s going on there,” he recently said. A Russian official has admitted that the regime is losing more and more control and may lose to the rebels.

It is just a matter of time before Syria is ‘freed’ but what then?

Alawites supporting the regime are especially vulnerable to revenge attacks, while predominantly Christian towns, accused by anti-government forces of harbouring “Al Assad’s gangs”, are being threatened. There is mounting evidence that elements within the opposition are just as ruthless and corrupt as Al Assad. A UN Commission of Inquiry concludes that Syria is in the grip of civil war. Following in-country investigations and interviews, the panel finds that what began as the people’s struggle for political pluralism has morphed into a conflict that is “overtly sectarian in nature”. The hopes of citizen protestors who took to the streets two years ago, have been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, foreign jihadists — and extremist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra, linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq which is currently targeting civilian aircraft over Damascus with missiles.

Earlier this month, the US designated Al Nusra as a terrorist organisation, hoping to dampen its growing popularity with populations under government siege. Many Syrians are disillusioned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), contending that the FSA failed to protect them or provide essentials for life in areas they control; they are turning instead towards Al Nusra, that has been donating flour and fuel to the most desperate.

Western intelligence agencies accuse Al Nusra of operating Al Qaida-style training camps in Syria to which Arab jihadists and western Islamists flock. Washington fears that such anti-Western religious fanatics are attempting to get their hands on Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons to terrorise the region. However, painting Al Nusra as a terrorist outfit has backfired, earning it greater support from those in dire straits who would shake hands with the devil to bring the conflict to conclusion. Moreover, secular commanders within the FSA — that receives the West’s blessing — have been edged out to make way for staunch Islamists.

The “Friends of the Syrian People”, made up of more than 100 nations — including the US, UK, France and GCC states — recognises the Syrian National Coalition (an opposition bloc) as the legitimate representative of Syria. The coalition is believed to be responsible and protective of human rights, but following its recognition, its leader asked the US to reconsider its labelling of Al Nusra. “We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal — to overthrow the criminal regime,” he said. Yes, until the bogeyman has gone, that’s true. But does he imagine Al Nusra and its ilk will simply fade into the sunset the day after?

No Arab popular uprising has delivered on its promise. Syria’s revolution will be no exception. Tomorrow, those with the loudest voices, the biggest guns and unshakeable religious fervour will battle it out for months or years to come, crushing individual freedoms and prosperity in their wake. I only hope that the Syrian people can reconcile their differences and prove me wrong.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com

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