Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

After Geneva

The root solution for Syria’s woes is for Bashar Al-Assad to understand that he failed and to step aside, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Syria has had the worst lot in this time of Arab quakes and upheavals that began at the outset of this decade, even if this season’s harvest brought some bitter fruit all around. History’s storms are inevitably rough and painful. They can only be weathered by countries and peoples endowed with such natural strengths as identity, cohesion, and social and political coherence. Since independence, Syria has been living a dream. It saw itself as the kernel of a greater Arab Nation, though all the while it was strained by subnational allegiances in an entity that had shrunken considerably from the “Greater Syria” that had existed in Ottoman times. The pull of subnational allegiances has always been a feature of the Arab Mashreq (Levant). In Lebanon, diverse allegiances more or less learned how to coexist, despite two civil wars. In Iraq and Syria, it was military repression and a heavy-handed state party that sometimes managed to keep the overarching national bond intact. Only Jordan, in spite of various tremors, retained its cohesion beneath the Hashemite Throne, which has proven itself not an insubstantial adhesive in spite of the heavy pressures of the Palestinian cause.

Syria was unable to weather the Arab Spring storm. Baath Party rule was characterised by a large degree of folly and an even greater degree of violence, brutality and an infinite willingness to push state terror and murder to the extreme. In most of the countries swept by the storm, the general tendency was to bend with it. The state may have been heavily buffeted, but ultimately it survived in one form or another and sustained the struggle towards calmer seas. All were aware that the clock could not be turned backwards and pinned their hopes on the possibility of building a new future. Only Syria showed a collective determination to take the conflict to the bitter end and all the rival forces there were adept at playing the regional and international fields in order to obtain what they needed to keep the conflict going.

In a way, the Syrian problem reminds one of the story of the two women who came to King Soliman with a newly born infant, each claiming it was hers. The wise king offered to cut the baby into two and give each woman a half. This was the test, of course. The real mother was the one who rejected this solution in order to save the life of her child. In the Syrian case, there are many “women” and all agree to divvying up the child.

It all started in Daraa. There, like elsewhere in the region, the “spring” began with peaceful demonstrations. However, the regime responded with massive and sustained violence and brutality. Army ranks quickly split and soon towns and villages throughout the country were drawn into pitched battle. Then, before long, the confrontation between the dictatorship and the opposition seeking freedom and democracy mutated with the infiltration of Al-Qaeda and similarly minded groups, and Syria exploded.

In Libya, international intervention helped resolve the battle. Following the fall of the regime, Libya was fragile but it had survived. In Yemen, there was regional intervention. The regime fell, but Yemen emerged intact. It, too, was more fragile, but it had survived. In Syria, there were various forms if regional and international intervention. But the regime did not fall. Instead, Syria deteriorated from fragile to debilitated, the central state crumbled dragging the provinces down with it, and the whole profusion of subnational ethnic, sectarian, regional ideo-political affiliations prevailed. Yet, Bashar Al-Assad and his clique still think they control a state.

At this point, one wonders whether international intervention will leave Syria whole, or whether a new reality will emerge. Note the difference between Geneva I and Geneva II. In the first instance, the approach was similar to that applied in other cases in the Arab Spring: create an interim government to oversee the drafting of a new constitution that would be worked out by consensus between the various stakeholders and that would lay the foundations of a new system of government that would hopefully be more democratic than its predecessor. That Geneva I had to be held at all was a strong indication that neither side in the war could win. The purpose of the idea of an interim government was to create a space to forge a patch of common ground that would enable progress toward some constructive result. To the opposition, this meant that Bashar and the Baath had to go, while to Bashar and the Baath, any inclusion of the opposition meant that Bashar and the Baath had to stay. As these positions were clearly non-starters, a new round of fighting was in order, in the hope that the field of battle would settle what diplomacy could not.

The Baathist regime left no stone unturned in its determination to have its way. It solicited the help of Hizbullah, then swung around to find a swarm of Israeli fighters bombing its missiles. It willingly relinquished its chemical weapons, having already obtained more than enough arms from Russia and Iran. These it put to use in a massive push, deftly exploiting divisions that had come to riddle the opposition due to the intervention of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But again, it failed to achieve a victory.

It was stalemate time again. Hence, Geneva II. Perhaps this is seen merely as an opportunity for everyone to catch a breath. Perhaps, regional and international parties will seize on it as a real opportunity to forge a comprehensive deal. If the latter, the path to resuscitating the Syrian state is now much longer and more arduous than ever. In Geneva I, the aim was to create a nice, impartial interim government representative of all factions that would take the whole of society by the hand and lead it to the construction of a new Syria. The aim still exists. But it has had to be deferred until a series of other tasks are accomplished first, beginning with a general truce. Yet even that aim is now ambitious, and all that can be hoped for, it appears, is a partial ceasefire in certain areas, in order to allow in humanitarian aid.

Syria, in short, is an enormous humanitarian disaster. The tragedies of the dead and wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees weave through every Syrian town and city, and refugee camps abroad, and these interweave with every facet of the conflict in Syria and with various dimensions of other conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. This immense tangle defies diplomatic efforts to grasp the strands and it requires the patience of job to achieve even a single modest success that would enable a few families to be rescued from death. One cannot help but to be struck by a certain irony. A question as major and complex as the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal was resolved relatively smoothly and quickly, inclusive of a phased programme to put the solution into effect. Such a possibility seems out of reach when it comes to human beings. There is no solution in sight yet for the people trapped in the lethal conditions in Aleppo or for the untold numbers of displaced persons inside Syria. As for the millions who fled abroad, their fate will probably be kept pending until a “Geneva III”, if not longer.

Geneva II might try to and might even succeed at staunching a few of Syria’s minor wounds, after which developments on the ground will have their say again. There is only one meaningful way to solve the Syrian problem at its roots. This is for Bashar to summon the courage to admit that he has failed to govern his country and to step aside. The longer he clings to power, the more misery he will create. Eventually, it will take much more than a Geneva conference to remedy the catastrophe.

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