In the complex and sectarian Syrian conflict military enthusiasm must give way to diplomatic muscle
As a Briton who lived in Syria in 2007-8 before the recent crisis, it is primarily my real life experiences and interactions with the people on the ground rather than solely my identity or sectarian affiliation that have shaped my reading and understanding of the current Syrian civil war.
Conversations, gatherings and chats at little cafes with local people were sufficient to convince me that a significant portion of the Sunni community were not only underrepresented at many of the senior levels of government, but were unfairly treated by the authorities in their daily life. With Assad not being a democrat, and the Alawite leadership not a reflection of the majority Sunni demographic, it became clear to me that the Arab Spring had the potential of providing the avenue for the people to channel their repressed anger.
However, the Syrian elite were not stupid – with the spread and early success of the Arab Spring from Tunisia to Egypt, they understood the dangers and were ready. They realised the dangers of allowing the people to think that these initially small demonstrations would be tolerated. With the palpable fear that any such demonstrations may grow, they brutally and violently attacked the demonstrators. Without going into the tit-for-tat arguments about the potential excesses of the demonstrators, there is little doubt that the government massively overreacted and killed a significant number of innocent civilians in this early period in what many human rights organisations have called war crimes. And it is at this point where we must pause and think: what did the key parties in the conflict do, and what should they have done?
From a national interest perspective, the Iranian government did not want to lose one of its major Arab allies in what has become a more and more sectarian and intolerant region. Similarly in Lebanon, Hizbullah had a known ally in its resistance movement with Assad. Given a democratic process may lead to a more sectarian anti-Shii majority government, both the short-term interests of Iran and Hizbullah were aligned and thus warranted intervention in favour of the regime. This was bolstered by the petro-dollar funding of the rebels: both those who legitimately wanted a political voice, and those extremist takfiris whose main aim was to weaken the Shia-led Iran and Hizbullah. With Syria acting as the geopolitical lightening rod of foreign interests, the legitimate grievances and desires of the Syrian people remained unheeded.
As a Shia Muslim, I saw the attitude of Iran and Hizbullah in the early days as massively short-sighted. I understood the geopolitical and strategic short-term interests. But (ignoring the immorality of an Islamic nation caring about national interests over human rights), Ahmedinejad and Nasrallah were not too long ago popular in the Arab world. Had they been supportive of a move to a democratic rule (as suggested in my solution below), their respect would have grown. Although there is no clear-cut answer, I would have hoped that together with the moral imperative of loosening ties with dictators when they start killing their own people, this would have been a more straightforward decision.
Of course there are polls to suggest that perhaps the people may not be as anti-Assad as we might think from the western media, but this should not take away from the fact that there have been no elections, and Iran and Hizbullah are on the side of Assad who is, by definition, a dictator. Therefore, Assad (in the long term) must go – regardless of one’s geopolitical position or strategic objectives, regardless of his religious beliefs or sectarian affiliations, and regardless of whether or not this may lie in the national interests of the bogeymen of Israel and America.
The problem is that things have changed since the early days. I have now lost faith in the so-called opposition, with atrocities being committed not only by the crazy extremists of Jubhat al-Nusra (with their links to al-Qaeda) and ISIL, but also more broadly by the Free Syrian Army. The opposition have been linked to attacks against churches and priests, places of worship, the exhumation of bodies, the targeting of civilians belonging to specific communities, the eating of a heart, seeking and potentially using chemical weapons, and acts determined by human rights organisations as war crimes– and these are only the atrocities that we know about. Further, being on the side of the neo-conservative war criminals such as Netenyahu, John McCain and Tony Blair as well as the extremist takfiris in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf makes me very nervous.
Although I am a strong believer in the democratic process, I am now not sure that an immediate transition into democracy could work – the wounds of sectarian hatred are too deep to heal right now. It would take a number of supreme statesmen (unlikely to be women in this region!) for such a thing to even be possible. But just because the USA starting another war is less likely following the Russian proposal, does not mean that we can forget about the Syrian people.
Our approach must be to flex our diplomatic muscles in the same way we regularly flex our military might to do what is right for the people. We, in the west, have to bite the bullet and engage with Vladimir Putin and Iran’s newly elected President Rouhani.
It is critical that we offer a route to normalisation of ties with the potential removal of sanctions to persuade a willing Iran to work with Assad in finding a solution to the problem. In particular, following a ceasefire, the framework of a compromise should include changes to the constitution to limit the length of a president’s term in power to eight years; to protect freedom of the press and the ability to criticise the president; to enshrine the right of people to form political parties without risk of arrest; to protect the rights of minorities; and to have a clear roadmap to internationally vetted elections within two years.
At the same time, we need to stop the flow of weapons entering the country and continued funding of extremists from the rebel side not only through explicit condemnation but also through diplomatic pressure on the Gulf countries whose involvement is also detrimental to the well being of the Syrian people. Although not a focus in this piece, the interference of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in this mess is huge, not only in their support of the rebels, but also in their increasingly hostile and sectarian rhetoric that is no doubt instigating the murders of Shias throughout the world.
With millions of refugees, over 100,000 dead, everyone in Syria either affected directly by the conflict or indirectly by the murder, and the growing hate-filled sectarian rhetoric spreading across the country, we cannot do nothing.
NOTE: All links to news and media websites should be treated with caution and due scepticism given the clear agenda and interests at play.
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