Nearly a year ago, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad granted an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he declared that the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni uprisings would not spill over into his country, ostensibly because Syrians were not in an ideological vacuum. While Tunisians — and Libyans — opened a new chapter in their political lives, Egyptians and Yemenis are stalled in their respective struggles. Regrettably, Syrians are fighting each other, with no end in sight.
Although no accurate figures exist on the number of the injured, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or those who simply disappeared in the country during the past year, available figures attributed to authorities or human rights organisations must be viewed with suspicion. Simply stated, no one knows how many died, though the statistics are probably much higher than most of us acknowledge.
Other data, this time on the economy, are equally problematic. To say that the Syrian economy is on the verge of collapse would be an understatement, and were it not for the hapless population's ingenuity to survive, hunger would be widespread. Agricultural production is hit hard, oil exports curtailed, imports of basic necessities at an all time low, and water, electricity and gasoline at a premium.
Busloads of Syrians are visible throughout Lebanon, including in Beirut, where many travel to shop for basic necessities. Syrian acquaintances are asking for canned goods that could be easily transported and whose shelf lives last longer than a year.
Meanwhile, and as the Arab League observers roam throughout the country, the killings continue. According to the League's Secretary-General Nabeel Al Arabi, Syria is on the verge of civil war, which prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, a few days ago, to call on Al Assad to stop slaughtering his own people. Other global actors added their voices to the chorus, each promoting its own interests, aware of the strategic stakes. Russia rushed a boatload of ammunition, which illustrated where Moscow's loyalties lay.
Even Israel, a paragon of duplicity in this part of the world, expressed its willingness to welcome Alawite refugees. The Chief of the General Staff, Lt Gen Benny Gantz actually declared that Israel was making plans to open its doors to Alawites, which few Arab commentators, and no fiery orators that mobilise docile audiences, deemed worthy of a comment.
One simply wondered whether Israel was ready to reward its Syrian allies who, for lack of a better term, ensured Israeli security by imposing an iron-clad umbrella on and around the Golan Heights. When one contemplates that few shots were fired along this contested border since 1973, one wonders what was Syria's national defence strategy, and why Iran, its heretofore ally that insists on liberating Palestine, has not raised the issue.
To be sure, Iran has much to lose if the Syrian crisis evolves into a full blown civil war, which is why few understand Teheran's brinkmanship that literally ‘expelled' the USS John Stennis (one of America's 13 aircraft carriers that give Washington its unmatched global capabilities) from the Gulf in the most amateurish way possible. Threatening to close the vital Strait of Hormuz is, to put it simply, a dangerous initiative and one expects better from savvy Iranians.
One must also touch on Turkish policies, which hold the key to resolving the latest Syria crisis, and ask what happened to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's repeated pleas to President Al Assad to stop the killings. Erdogan extended his now famous two-week notices so often that one is puzzled by Ankara's delay tactics.
What is Erdogan up to? Is he basking in the shadows waiting for the call to create a neutral zone along the Turkish-Syrian borders? Does Ankara have an understanding with western powers as to when to impose a no-fly-zone over Syria that would, by sheer necessity, involve Nato bases in Turkey? Was he waiting for a League request to join it in sending troops to Syria as proposed by the Qatari Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani?
Under the circumstances, and to avoid a cataclysmic escalation, it's time for Al Assad to speak to the Wall Street Journal again. Except that in this interview, the Syrian leader may want to recognise that his year-long prediction was an error that he now regrets making. He ought to disassociate himself from Iran, a non-Arab power with diametrically opposed objectives to Arab ones, and from Turkey whose Sunni leaders nevertheless practice advanced secularism that cannot possibly mesh with Arab values.
Damascus would be wise to accept League ‘peacekeeping forces' to separate its ill-trained and largely inefficient troops from a population that refuses to bow to the Baath regime. Ultimately, the most courageous step that Al Assad could take would be to dismantle the Baath party, before someone else does that for him. His alternative to such bold steps, which will save Syria, is to consider Gantz's inducement.
Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.