What has changed in Syria?
Angela Gissi - 04/09/2012
The events that have been characterizing Syria in the last few weeks revived the interest of many people in what is an over-a-year-and-half battlefront in the Middle East.
Despite the efforts of the regime to keep a hold on the country, rebels manage to gain ground and the call for the upheaval obtains more and more consent among multi-confessional Syrian citizens. With this scenario, the first question that comes to my mind is “what has changed”?
The rhetoric of “good triumphs over evil” doesn’t apply to the case of Syria where the stakes are very high and sanity doesn’t seem to prevail in the ranks of power. In fact, the continuous recourse of the Syrian Armed Forces to heavy artillery in order to bottle up the rebels proves, on the one hand, the political “freak out” in the control room and, on the other hand, the inexperience of governmental forces to fight back “subversive” attacks in the streets.
Notwithstanding the use of rudimentary guns and the adoption of basic techniques of the guerrilla to challenge the giant army of the president, the opposition has lately achieved great successes. First, by catching military units off-guard, the revolutionaries have torn apart the ability of regime to respond promptly on the ground. Second, the headcount of dissidents has seen a steady and significant increase due to the numerous defections of politicians and diplomats (the Syrian ambassadors to Iraq Nawaf al-Fares, the Syrian ambassador to the Emirates Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh with his wife, Lamia al-Hariri, The Syrian charge d'affaires to Cyprus), along with soldiers and high officers of the Syrian army, such as Manaf Tlass. Third, after having lost relatives and friends in state’s strikes, the general feeling that “there’s nothing else to lose” is a self-fulfilling engine of determination for the rebels.
As a result of the combination of the three points highlighted above, some areas of the country are totally, and most likely irreversibly, under the control of revolutionary forces.
If Bashar al-Assad had been a cunning ruler and had granted some concrete reforms to his people, in a time of uncertainty and instability for secular regimes in the Arab world, he wouldn’t have found himself in such a situation, perhaps. However, his rabid response (Deraa, Houla…) was unequivocally a declaration of war on defenceless demonstrators and a clear message of the regime’s intolerance of the democratic aspirations of Syrians.
Today, after 17 months of massacre to the detriment of the Syrian population, the Chinese and Russian governments, along with the Lebanese Hezbollah and, obviously, Iran, are still firmly supporting Bashar al-Assad, as a victim of an international conspiracy to destabilize the whole region. In his last speech right after the bomb attack that struck one of the regime’s headquarters, Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shiites, restated the key role played by the al-Assad regime in the Arab-Israeli conflict and, in an attempt to peddle its presence as crucial for the stability of the Middle East, he shamelessly called it a bulwark of peace.
On the top of all this, about a month ago the first lady Asma al-Assad appeared in public wearing a black t-shirt on which one can read in Arabic “you, my beautiful country”, an inappropriate slogan that ignores the mounting death toll and the violence ruling in today’s Syria.
The end to this ordeal seems to be very far away and, considering that the exit of Bashar could be one of the various plausible outcomes of the conflict, my concern is that it might not correspond to the end of the al-Assad regime. While Bashar and his family might repair to one of the few still friendly countries, he might continue to use his influence from outside to operate in Syria.
Although, in terms of the military means at hand, the imbalance between rebels and the army is still strong and it is in favour of the latter, the shelling and the razing to the ground of entire cities by the president’s forces can only slow down (but not stop) the rebels from pushing forward the liberation of the country at any cost. The president’s supporters inside and outside the country are, clearly, not of like mind and continue to slaughter both civilians and activists (both locals and outsiders).
What is the reason behind that? Well, the geopolitical significance of the area and the international interests revolving around the control of this strategic region represent, sadly, the core of the question under the spotlight. I say “sadly” because what is often neglected by media and public organizations in regards to the Syrian situation is the popular roots and the genuine nature of the revolution that arose in the name of dignity, justice and freedom from the tyranny and oppression of the political apparatus. Perhaps what many makeshift Middle East think-tanks forget is that the Al-Assad kingdom has subjugated its citizens and deprived them of human dignity over 5 decades.
Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of the widespread insurgency in Syria is nothing but the result of a plight saturated with fear and rage, a time bomb ready to explode long before these events happened. In fact, it is notorious how the regime marginalized the majority of the Syrian population, the Sunnis, (to the advantage of the Alawite sect), thus obtaining the blessing of other minorities in the country, such as the Christian community. Compared to the Sunnis, the Kurds have been spared by the regime (relatively speaking) with the aim of keeping them out of the cause of the rebels. Like the opposition, the Kurdish front is divided between those who take to the streets supporting the revolutionaries, tacitly collaborating with their historic Turkish enemy, and those who refuse to involve themselves with Turkey, putting pan Kurdish nationalism above the Syrian cause.
Considerations and off-the-cuff analyses of the Syrian unrest abound in newspapers and on television, like in a betting race to outline the next move or the possible outcomes of this conflict. Personally, I can’t foresee what is going to happen in the next months. However, what is clear is that the future of Syria and of Syrians seems very uncertain. The common denominator between the two al-Assad rulers was their use of violence and that, in their ruinous insanity, they were backed by other states, groups and political organizations in the area.
In today’s scenario, while people flee the country (mainly to go to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan) and the regime struggles to survive, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) continues with its declared mission of fighting the oppressor in order to create a new democratic country in which the unified Syrian people can coexist in peace. Nevertheless, it is true that the actions of the FSA are also exacerbating the polarization of strenuous supporters of the regime and fuelling cyclical violence. In spite of the stated not-sectarian nature of the FSA, by virtue of which they assure that there will not be any confessional reprisals if Bashar Al-Assad falls, the regime’s devotees do not trust that the adversary will forget the massive killings in their ranks perpetrated by their protectors, contributing in this way to bringing closer the spectre of the civil war.
Moreover, irrespective of the aims of the FSA, external actors creep into the conflict motivated by different goals. This is the case of groups like the African and Chechen jihadists who kidnapped the Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans and his English colleague. But they are not the only ones. The Western block (Europe and US) allegedly tottering between pro and anti-intervention resolutions, are definitely waiting for the most favourable time to get involved and participate to the glory, while trying to establish contacts with rebels through Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the funders of, and arms suppliers to, the rebels. Quite hypocritical, but not astonishing, the US’s call for democracy in the bedevilled Syria of al-Assad and the US’s simultaneous support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, kingdoms of respectively dictators and autocrats. Fearing the instauration of an Islamic government in Syria, as with the western bloc, Israel is keeping a close eye on the political unrest in Syria and is probably hoping for the regime to squash the revolt. After all, Israel knows its enemy Bashar al-Assad: a dog that barks but does not bite.
The Syrian question is far from being resolved and the fear that the situation might slip towards civil war is not a remote hypothesis. I have Syrian friends on Facebook belonging to different sects. Among them, the Muslims - both Shiites and Sunnis - who managed to flee Syria openly condemn the regime, while those who still live in the country are more cautious. The Alawites always post pictures of the president and praise his phenomenal charisma. A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a Christian friend living in Damascus and just after the Houla massacre, he said: “Our president is stronger than those bastards. He’ll defeat them all. So far, he has been very patient with them but now he has had enough of all this chaos and will kill them all. Don’t trust what western media say…it’s all part of the conspiracy against Syria and our great president”. This disgrace leaves me speechless while my skin crawls.
Being very conscious of the filthy game that international politics is playing with respect to the Syrian case, I would encourage NGOs and humanitarian organizations 1) to stay away from shallow considerations about the strategies that different states might apply to the conflict; 2) to scorn morally corrupted behaviour of big powers outside Syria; 3) last but not the least, to plead only the cause of the unity of the Syrian people based on three fundamental principles already mentioned above: justice, freedom and dignity. Long live Syria!