Commentary: Syria's uprising and the world
The international community must put pressure on Syria to join the Arab Spring, writes Hisham Ahmed
Click to view caption|
Tunisia's Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem (c) prepares to address the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis last week
As many people may already know, the English meaning of the Arabic word Al-Assad is Lion. In the jungle, the lion is viewed as the king, as he is expected to be a more brutal monster.
Indeed, of all the Arab regimes that have been toppled since the start of the Arab Spring last year, Syria's Al-Assad regime is the most dangerous. While it is impossible to quantify oppression and repression, the Al-Assad regime has certainly surpassed its Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Yemeni counterparts in its assault on the rights of its people and other Arabs over the years.
Although the other deposed Arab heads of state were ruthless and tyrannical beyond imagination, Al-Assad's dictatorship is, in fact, of a distinct nature. In their failing efforts to delegitimise the revolutions in their countries, Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh, all respectively tried to invoke their military and/or historic roles in nation-building of their countries, as a source of legitimacy.
For his part, Bashar Al-Assad can claim neither military heroism nor historic preeminence, for he enjoys neither. He has inherited his tight grab on power from his late father, Hafez Al-Assad who had instituted blatant deceitful ideology, tribal and partisan manipulation and brute force, as means for his rule. Bashar was detached from politics. He was not to become President of Syria were it not for the intervention of some fateful circumstance: the elder son in the family, Bassel, who was being groomed by his father to inherit the reign of power, got killed in a car accident in 1994. As Al-Assad the father was dying in 2000, he instructed that the age requirement for presidency in the country's constitution be amended immediately from 40 to Bashar's age, 35 years. In so doing, President Al-Assad had punctuated a new concept in Arab politics, monarchical-republicanism. His move became an envy for some Arab "presidents" to emulate. Thus was the goal of Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya and Saleh of Yemen before they met their respective destinies.
Since its rise to power in 1970, the Assad regime has been the most hypocritical and schizophrenic in the Arab region. While it has espoused Baathist socialism, it systematically secured the resources of the country only in the hands of a small group of self-serving individuals in government.
While it has advocated Arab unity, it proved to be the most divisive. Its role in Lebanon after the start of the devastating 1975 civil war is graphically telling: Al-Assad, the father was masterfully opportunistic in supporting and arming different conflicting groups against each other. Al-Assad's instrumental role in creating splits and divisions among Palestinians is quite well-known in the Arab World, as he backed insurgents against the PLO in 1982 and as he, until recently, supported Hamas against the Palestinian Authority.
While it has claimed that it is the most progressive, it turned out to be the most backward regime, as it is grounded in tribalism and sectarianism. The Alawite sect to which the Al-Assad regime belongs makes only 10 per cent of Syria's population. Of course, it goes without saying that not all Alawites are supporters of Assad and that not all non-Alawites are opponents of his regime.
For the Syrians, Al-Assad's regime has been the greatest evil that can befell a people. Over four decades of tyranny, the regime has regularly used the iron fist to crush opposition, as it savagely exterminated tens of thousands of Syrians in Hama in 1982. Since the start of the latest wave of protests last year, it has killed thousands of people and maimed and imprisoned many more thousands. The prison system it has established is known to be one of the most notorious in the world.
For the Palestinians, The Al-Assad regime is the perpetrator of divisions and massacres, the most gruesome being the Tal Al-Zaatar massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees it had committed in Lebanon, in 1976. For the Lebanese, the Al-Assad regime is a constant reminder of the more than two decades destruction of their country during the civil war. For all other Arabs, the Al-Assad regime is the exemplification of despotism that they have long rejected.
Given its many structural and functional detriments, the Al-Assad regime itself understands that any serious meaningful reform in Syria today by necessity means its extinction, for it knows that it is lacking in representation and legitimacy. The question before us now is not whether the regime will crumble, but rather when, how, by whom and under what circumstances. Even the few supporters of the regime in Syria today recognise that Al-Assad's days are numbered.
Reflecting on the way the crises in Syria and the rest of the Arab World are being handled both internally and externally, one cannot help but think of the striking similarities of the dynamics affecting the international environment exactly a century ago. One should easily recall that on the eve of World War I, the Arab people were quite restless against their Ottoman rulers. Unrest in the Arab region was caused by the Ottomans' systematic assault on Arab identity and dignity, as the Ottoman Empire pursued a vigorous campaign of de-Arabisation and Turkification. Overwhelmed by continued Ottoman oppression, many Arabs were willing to ally themselves even with the devil so as to rid themselves of their oppressors. As the Arabic proverb puts it: "some Arabs were like somebody who is drowning and willing to hold onto a straw. Of course, the Big Powers, particularly Britain and France, were, not only keenly observing, but actually instigating and promising the Arabs independence if they were to fight on the side of the Allies. I need not remind you of the intricacies of the so-called Great Arab Rebellion of the so-called Sherif Hussein of Mecca.
Certainly, there were many Arabs, particularly in Bilad Al-Sham, Greater Syria, who never believed that the way out from Ottoman rule lies in the embracing of British and French deceptive promises: to them, the attainment of freedom required more than a frustrated drive toward independence.
Today one can easily see quite a similarly divided world, with competing interests between the big powers, especially in relationship to the transformation being brought about by the Arab Spring. Indeed, a Sykes-Picot like formula seems to be in the making. The attempts to derail Arab Revolutions and set them off their tracks are plentiful, as has been happening in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and most notably in Syria.
Therefore, following the widely-disputed Iraqi and Libyan model of regime change can bring about some of the most catastrophic results, not only for Syria, but also for the region as a whole. Syria's geo-strategic importance is not to be under-estimated. The state of anarchy and attempts at division characterising Libya's and Iraq's life are not compatible with the Syrian people's goals and ambitions. Both countries, Libya and Iraq have unfortunately been turned into hotbeds of intelligence communities from all over the world. The calls for arming the Syrian opposition by Western powers are not meant to help the Syrian people. Rather, they are designed to turn Syria into a dumping ground for every weapons manufacturing industry which seeks to thrive. Making Syria another Lebanon, where every desirous power tries to unleash its greed, aggression and/or maximise its interests goes against the Syrian struggle to get rid of the brutal tyrant. . The Lebanonisation of Syria turns an already awful situation into a more dreadful disaster.
In light of the Russian and Chinese veto lately in the Security Council regarding Syria, the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis seems to gratify the Al-Assad regime, as it appears to have revived world polarisation, in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War era.
It is compellingly obvious that conventional solutions for the Syrian dilemma will not work. Hence, the need for a creative and an innovative way out of the current quagmire is more pressing than ever before.
For all intents and purposes, the solution should be mainly Arab in nature. In the face of Al-Assad's brutal bombardment of its people, sending only Arab monitors proved to be quite inadequate.
In addition to mobilising the already active Arab Street in support of the Syrian people, the Arab League, as weak as it may seem to be, needs to be pressured to organise a credible Arab peace-keeping force to maintain law and order in Syria. It also needs to provide protection for the Syrian people, exactly as it had authorised the Syrian regime to send its forces in Lebanon, under the rubric of the Arab Deterrence Forces, supposedly to troubleshoot the civil war there.
In the final analysis, as hard as this may appear to be, the way out of the Syrian crisis must spring from the Syrian people's ideas of freedom and not from an external Western force and/or intervention: it is well-known that it was the colonial approach by the French up until the end of World War II, which had contributed to the making of Syria's contemporary political problems, in the first place.
As such, Al-Assad's gratification at the polarization of the world, as evidenced by the double Chinese and Russian veto in the UN Security Council, needs to be brought to an immediate halt. Al-Assad's "Killing Fields" will have to be stopped. The Syrian people are not paying with their blood today so as to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
As is widely known, today's Arab dictators are not the ones the peoples of the Arab World had struggled to institute in office whether during their quest for freedom from the Ottomans and/or during their wars of national independence and liberation. Accordingly, one has to insist that tomorrow's Syria's leaders reflect national ambitions, and not the aspirations of the lukewarm friends of Syria. These powers which manipulate Syrian suffering and bloodshed to advance their own interests are not much different from the Al-Assad regime, even if one side wears a seemingly glowing mask. The choice never need not be between the decadent Al-Assad dictatorship and the revival of the increasingly rising Western drive toward exploitation.
Any solution to the Syrian dilemma will, by necessity, have to be Syrian Arab in nature.
The writer is professor of politics at Saint Mary's College of California.