From a nothing-to-lose revolution to having nothing to choose
With UN peace envoy Lahkdar Brahimi having just embarked on a mission to Syria, the wider international community continues to struggle in its quest to deliver a plan that will end the violence without disrupting any of the major players’ own geopolitical interests. Brahimi’s first stop was Cairo, where Egyptian President Ibrahim Morsi and his democratically elected Islamist government acts as a warning to those in the West pre-emptively fearful of the Middle East transforming into one giant pan-Arabist, pan-Islamist state. What Brahimi may try to establish is, if the secularist Assad goes, will the Islamists (namely the Muslim Brotherhood who are already key stakeholders in the Syrian National Council) take over? Russia remains concerned about fanatical, violent Islamists creeping into power and the impact that removing Assad would have on commercial ally Iran, while the US is hopeful that deposing Assad and installing democracy will encourage stability within the region and improve its commercial interests and security for Israel. However, the revolution-hungry Internet has pushed politics aside and allowed the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s regime to lead the people of Syria into a bloody battle where both sides jostle to depict a plain old-fashioned good versus evil tale.
It began in 2011 when the seemingly synchronised yet spontaneous anti-government movements in the Middle East sparked a frenzy of giddy tabloid excitement and bleak broadsheet narratives. “And it shall be called The Arab Spring,” the media decreed, probably with the same air of complacency felt by the creative forces behind local outlets such as Brewed Awakening and Sofa So Good.
In 2012, a quick Google search for ‘revolution’ will take you just under two pages to find something remotely relevant to the Middle East. Vodka bars, an NBC production, and even motorsport wheels will get to tell you their story before you get a glimpse of Syria’s. Perhaps it is an elaborate act of honourable intervention from the Mountain View web giants but, then again, the media, and its readership, who were so quick to buy into the fairy tale revolution, lost a lot of its vigour and enthusiasm when it realised the complexity of the situation.
What began as a series of protests back in March 2011 and sought momentum to realise the self-determination of a people opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party has now dwindled, divided, and depressed the hell out of everyone. The civil war has taken the lives of approximately 20,000 people and displaced over 235,000 of the living, providing recruiting militant Islamists and gloomy headline writers with helpful statistics. Just as Iraqis witnessed their livelihoods wrested away from relative normality by the bombs on their doorsteps, the battlegrounds of Aleppo and Damascus left the people caught in the crossfire reeling at homes destroyed and loved ones lost. Such travesties are the bedrock of fundamentalist movements, and in Syria, some of them can be found freeloading on the FSA’s infrastructure – which, due to its lack of coherent organisation, has no way of absolutely preventing the freeloaders from arming themselves with the incoming foreign funding – and finding a backdoor into power.
One of the not-for-profit organisations providing funds to the FSA, the Syrian Support Group, uses a ‘proclamation’ to ensure that donations do not end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda cells. Essentially, this is a contract with a list of promises, including the ‘rejection of terrorism’, signed by the FSA’s Military Councils. A written agreement is certainly no guarantee, especially in the midst of a civil war where some rebel fighters are still using interceptable walkie-talkies for communications and publicly executing shabiha men (pro-Assad militia) based on secondary sources.
A certainty, of course, is that Assad’s military might of fighter jets and an army almost three times the size of its opposition is far superior. However, there are numerous problems preventing outright victory for the president. Violently turning on protesters has obviously encouraged anti-Assad sentiment, scoring the FSA plenty of precious propaganda points, and while the fighting continues, those death toll figures are only going to increase and improve the FSA’s shadowy Islamist wings’ powers of persuasion. Meanwhile, at the highest level, 42 of Assad’s men have defected, including 26 senior military and security officials. With divisions on both sides, no single unified vision outlined for the future of Syria, and little hope of direct and aggressive intervention from the US, this bloody stalemate continues. So what are the options?
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is the largest well-organised group within the Syrian National Council making up approximately one quarter of the members. Although seen to be adopting a more mainstream Islamic view, the Muslim Brotherhood must contend with violent Islamist groups like the Salafists who are hoping to offer more immediate political gratification for young men brutalised by war. On the other end of the spectrum, though, are Syria’s large Christian and Alawite communities that would reject any government so heavily centred on the Sunni form of religion. Were the Muslim Brotherhood able to secure leadership in Syria it would not be under the same conditions as in Egypt. The real concern is that if the radical Islamists build a stronger following, then it is likely that concessions will have to be made to Syria’s secular living to avoid further conflict.
Brahimi’s peace mission will have uncovered some more facts around the future of Syria but it is highly doubtful that it will move Russia and China to agree with the US’s plot to remove Assad relatively peacefully. With Iran supporting Assad in a bid to secure its own regional partnerships – and Russia and China keeping their distance to avoid upsetting the volatile Ahmadinejad, thus ruining their own regional commercial interests – Syria has little hope of getting rid of Assad without force. Dominant and competing international interests will play a large role in allowing Syrian citizens the freedom to choose their own leaders unless the US’s diplomatic staying power pays off and Assad steps down. That is unlikely but, for want of a pithy paronomasiac conclusion, it’s a marathon, not a spring.
Image from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/10/syria-lakhdar-brahimi-humanitarian-crisis
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.