Once one of the most solid states in the Middle East and a key pivot of the regional power structure, Syria is now facing wholesale destruction. The consequences of the unfolding drama are likely to be disastrous for Syria’s territorial integrity, for the well-being of its population, for regional peace, and for the interests of external powers deeply involved in the crisis.
The most immediate danger is that the fighting in Syria, together with the current severe pressure being put on Syria’s Iranian ally, will provide the spark for a wider conflagration from which no one will be immune.
How did it come to this? Every actor in the crisis bears a share of responsibility. Syria is the victim of the fears and appetites of its enemies as well as its own leaders’ mistakes.
With hindsight, it can be seen that President Bashar Al Assad missed the chance to reform the tight security state he inherited in 2000 from his father. Instead of recognising — and urgently addressing — the thirst for political freedoms, personal dignity and economic opportunity, which were the messages of the ‘Damascus Spring’ of his first year in power, he screwed the lid down ever more tightly.
Suffocating controls over every aspect of Syrian society were reinforced, and made harder to bear by the blatant corruption and privileges of the few and the hardships suffered by the many. Physical repression became routine. Instead of cleaning up his security apparatus, curbing police brutality and improving prison conditions, he allowed them to remain as gruesome and deplorable as ever.
Above all, over the past decade Al Assad and his close advisers failed to grasp the revolutionary potential of two key developments — Syria’s population explosion and the long-term drought which the country suffered from 2006 to 2010, the worst in several hundred years. The first produced an army of semi-educated young people unable to find jobs; the second resulted in the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of farmers from their parched fields to slums around the major cities.
Herders in the northeast lost 85 per cent of their livestock. It is estimated that by 2011, some two to three million Syrians had been driven into extreme poverty. No doubt climate change was responsible, but government neglect and incompetence contributed to the disaster.
These two factors — youth unemployment and rural disaffection — were the prime motors of the uprising which spread like wildfire, once it was triggered by a brutal incident in Daraa in March 2011. The foot soldiers of the uprising are unemployed urban youth and impoverished peasants.
Could the regime have done something about it? Yes, it could. As early as 2006-07, it could have alerted the world to the situation, devoted all available resources to urgent job creation, launched a massive relief programme for its stricken population and mobilised its citizens for these tasks. No doubt major international aid agencies and rich Gulf countries would have helped had the plans been in place.
Instead, the regime’s gaze was distracted by external threats: by the Lebanese crisis of 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri; by Israel’s bid to destroy Hezbollah by its invasion of Lebanon in 2006; by its attack on Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007; and by its bid to destroy Hamas in its murderous assault on Gaza in 2008-09.
From the start of Al Assad’s presidency, Syria has faced relentless efforts by Israel and its complicit American ally to bring down the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah, which dared challenge the regional dominance of Israel and the US.
Syria had a narrow escape in 2003-4. Led by the Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz, the pro-Israeli neo-cons embedded in US president George W. Bush’s administration were determined to reshape the region in Israel’s and America’s interest. Their first target was Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, seen as a potential threat to Israel. Had the US been successful in Iraq, Syria would have been next. Neither Iraq nor the US has yet recovered from the catastrophic Iraqi war, of which Wolfowitz was the chief ‘architect’.
Syria and its Iranian ally are once again under imminent threat. The US and Israel make no secret of their goal to bring down both the Damascus and Tehran regimes. No doubt some Israeli strategists believe that it would be greatly to their country’s advantage if Syria were dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of a small Alawite state around the port-city of Latakia in the northwest, in much the same way as Iraq was dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north of the country, with its capital at Arbil.
It is not easy to be the neighbour of an expansionist and aggressive Jewish state, which believes that its security is best assured, not by making peace with its neighbours, but by subverting, destabilising and destroying them with the aid of American power.
The US and Israel are not Syria’s only enemies. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been dreaming of revenge ever since their attempt 30 years ago to topple Syria’s Baathist regime by a campaign of terror was crushed by Hafez Al Assad, Syrian president at the time.
Today, the Brotherhood is repeating the mistake they made then by resorting to attacks with the aid of foreign Salafists, including some Al Qaida fighters flowing into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other countries further afield. The liberal members of the Syrian opposition in exile, including several worthy academics and veteran opponents, are providing political cover for these violent elements.
Some Arab Gulf states persist in viewing the region through a sectarian prism. They are worried by Iran’s alleged hegemonic ambitions. They are unhappy that Iraq — once a Sunni power able to hold Iran in check — is now under Shiite leadership. Talk of an emerging ‘Shiite Crescent’ appears to threaten Sunni dominance. For these reasons they are funding and arming the Syrian rebels in the hope that bringing down the Syrian regime will sever Iran’s ties with the Arab world. But this policy will simply prolong Syria’s agony, claim the lives of some of its finest men and cause massive material damage.
America, the dominant external power, has made many grievous policy blunders. Over the past several decades it failed to persuade its stubborn Israeli ally to make peace with the Palestinians, leading to peace with the whole Arab world. It embarked on catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It failed to reach a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran which would have dispelled the spectre of war in the Gulf and stabilised the volatile region. And it is now quarrelling with Moscow and reviving the Cold War by sabotaging Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria.
There can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. The only way out of the nightmare is a ceasefire imposed on both sides, followed by negotiations and the formation of a national government to oversee a transition. Only thus can Syria avoid wholesale destruction, which could take a generation or two to repair.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, including Al Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.