Crisis without end in Syria

The Syrian upheaval has snowballed since March 2011 with the funding and arming of the forces opposed to President Assad by the West and some of its Gulf Arab allies

The crisis in Syria — in close proximity of Israel and on a political axis with Iran, and boxed inside a geography that has defied optimism for decades — is getting intractable. The military standoff is eerie, and there appears no negotiating bridgehead in sight.

If the leading Western powers, especially the US, and other responsible states, do not show awareness that we could end up in an Afghanistan-like quagmire with a variant of politically extremist Islam (with its attendant danger of open-ended terrorism) threatening to jump into the driver’s seat, thanks to intra-regional instigation (as in the Afghan case) and the West turning a blind eye, we may be nearer the cusp of another conflagration without end than we think.
Only, the situation might be far worse in oil-rich West Asia. The resultant violent chaos is likely to cast a long shadow on world economies (America’s rosy shale oil scenario notwithstanding), and make worse the many existing contradictions and fractures in that region — Sunni versus Shia Islam, secular versus Islamist politics, sheikhs and emirs versus the Arab street, and the epochal Arab-Israel schism that has distorted the picture for 60 years.
The Syrian upheaval has snowballed since March 2011 with the funding and arming of the forces opposed to President Bashir al-Assad by the West and some of its Gulf Arab allies. But the regime has withstood the shock treatment for two years and has not scattered.
Its military has stood firm behind the President, although individual desertions have occurred, at times in large numbers, raising hopes in Washington and London. The Assad regime’s tenacity has surprised the West, and led to the irresponsible call in some Arab quarters for sending an Arab expeditionary force into Syria to oust Mr Assad.
Besides the comprehensive endorsement of the armed forces, the government also appears to enjoy broad public support, as reported by diverse observers. It is unlikely to have stood up to the West-designed challenge, and the manoeuvres of the oil and gas-rich Arab sheikhdoms, without substantial political backing at home.
And yet, ironically, the externally instigated armed rebellion — which is now only nominally domestic as some of its most influential and powerful combat brigades (the Jabah-al-Nusra, for example) are supplied by Al Qaeda from outside the country — is propagandistically referred to in the West as being part of the recent West Asian continuum exalted as the “Arab spring” which brought down unpopular secular autocrats and boosted parties of political Islam, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
This is to stand analytical categories on their head. If anything, the events of the past two years underline that unlike, say, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Syrian ruler, has unremittingly shown that the public remain with him by and large, although he shares with nearly every single West Asian potentate (so beloved of the West) the characteristic of not being an elected leader.
Indeed, Mr Assad’s case is particularly striking. In the Arab lands famous for their tribal loyalties and the deep-going Shia-Sunni schism, the Syrian leader appears to enjoy the support of a country of 23 million, three-fourths of which is Sunni while Mr Assad himself comes from the small minority Alawite Shia sect that is hardly 12 per cent of the population.
The heady whiff of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the “Arab Spring” (since then gone limp with the rise of the Islamists under Mohamed Morsi now allied with Egypt’s military, and the emphatic defeat of the staunchly secular liberals, the original authors of Tahrir that saw Mubarak out) had led breathless Western commentators to conclude that Al Qaeda had at last been trumped in the Arab cultural heartland. This was shown to be a dud in no time.
In sharp contrast, the Islamist Al Qaeda brigades are still being kept at bay in
Mr Assad’s Syria although the ongoing fighting is fierce and has claimed 60,000 lives in two years.
So, why is Washington on the other side of the Syrian Tahrir? Why is the Islamist Morsi — who lost no time in showing his colours after his election by seeking to appropriate the country’s Constitution for political Islam for which other religious and political belief systems are abhorrent — to be preferred to the unelected but secular Mr Assad, who has politically demonstrated that his people still back him?
The answer must surely lie in the American striving to seek to forcibly set aside West Asian regimes that have traditionally been defiant of the West, and its hare-brained notion of exporting democracy in a matter of weeks and months to those who might not be interested (unless they can arrive at it through their own internal processes), but letting friendly oil-fattened dictators be.
For proof we need to look no farther than the dismemberment of Iraq and Libya on false pretexts or by raising patently bogus hopes of a democratic new deal. US President Barack Obama, from whom much was expected, has shown no stomach for reining in the American passion for overseas military interventions at the expense of non-American peoples.
In a major speech last Sunday (January 6), Mr Assad offered a concordat, a roadmap for a conference of all parties — if fighting ceased — that would lead up to the creation of an elected Parliament and government, and a new Constitution; setting himself up for elections, in effect.
The scheme is not fundamentally different from the UN-backed Geneva communique of June 30, 2012, that asks for a political transition and establishing of a transitional government, culminating in a UN-supervised election for a new Parliament.
And yet, within a matter of hours, the Assad plan was rejected by the UN secretary-general, the Western capitals, and the Opposition fighters. Fierce fighting has begun to rage, as if on cue, although for the record Ban Ki-moon foresees “no military solution to the Syrian conflict”.
Here is the catch. Although it is not spelt out, the Geneva agreement desires Mr Assad’s ouster, here and now, a point made at regular intervals by the US and all its allies who appear to fear that if the Syrian President is not first removed and disgraced (possibly killed), their proxy cannot be inserted in Syria. This looks ominously like the Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi model of disappearance.
Although India has not demanded Mr Assad’s ouster, its voice in respect of the murky goings-on in Syria is distinguishable only by its muteness.

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