Friday, 29 June 2012

Collective Failure Sees Syria Burning

The Syrian Free Army is not organised and powerful to stand against Assad's forces

When the protests took off in January 2011 in Syria, no one thought that the opposition to the government would take so much time to bear fruit. It started as a peaceful protest but soon took a wrong turn and became violent. Resistance against the Assad government, along with sectarian violence, has seen city after city being attacked and it seems that human life is the ready casualty. According to estimates by the United Nations (UN) at least 10,000 people have been killed and scores more have been injured and displaced since the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started.

US Inaction

The economic slowdown since 2008 and the costly misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the US realise that it can no longer go about its old ways. The US has pulled out of Iraq and has set a timetable for its exit from Afghanistan. Given the scenario, it would not want to engage its troops in another mission on foreign soil.

Washington is like a cat that is extremely cautious after having stepped water. Only a cat that has lost its mind will step into a bowl of boiling water. The presidential election in November is another reason why the US could be exercising extreme caution.

Russian Obstacle

Probably, the biggest hindrance for any meaningful UN resolution on Syria is the stand taken by Russia. Russia has strong military, economic and political ties with Syria and does not want to relinquish relations with its sole ally in the region.

The Kremlin is banking on the probability that by assisting Assad it can help the government gain control and that things will get back to normal.

What the Kremlin does not seem to understand is that the longer the unrest continues the slimmer the chances of Assad regaining control are, and prolonged conflict will only strengthen the Islamists. For the Islamists Russia is the bete noire.

What has not helped is the recent accusation by the Obama administration that the Kremlin was arming Damascus with helicopters. The US has been blowing hot and cold over its remarks on Russia. After US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of providing Syria with assault helicopters, the US State Department ate humble pie saying that the helicopters were ‘refurbished’ and belonged to the Assad regime. Countering the US attack on Russia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow was not arming Syria to attack peaceful demonstrations but at the same time Washington was giving riot control gear to regimes in the region — hinting at alleged US covert efforts to help tackle growing protests in Bahrain.

Rise of Islamists

The so-called Arab Spring sparked off in Tunisia. From there it spread to Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, and by the time to gripped Syria it had brought down a few regimes and was taking a form that was not conducive for the world powers in the region.

Political observers look at the ‘Arab Spring’ as a development which none — neither the people nor the governments— had anticipated to take its present form.

By the time the wave of freedom and unrest spread to Syria, it was clear that the Islamist forces/groups, that were either kept at the margins or outside the system (thanks to the pro-West bend the fallen rulers had adopted in their countries over the years), had gained a foothold and were working their way to the heart of the system. The most prominent of these groups is the Muslim Brotherhood.

While analysts have been caught unawares by public acceptance and support base the Brotherhood has gained, what worries them is that the Brotherhood might enforce retrograde codes of conduct thereby enforcing a sort of ‘Talibanisation’ of the countries that are in a political flux. Even if one were to think that the Brotherhood is not much of a problem, what cannot be wished away is the possibility of the al-Qaeda gaining ground where there is a vacuum of power and order. The Assad government’s brutal use of force and the near helplessness of Western powers have left the people opposing the government on their own. In this time of need it is the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that are extending a helping hand — Islamists have been pouring in money and many people are turning to them for arms and protection.

In Syria, while the resistance to Assad’s army was initially peaceful this changed once the protesters were attacked by the Syrian military.

While it has been almost impossible to ascertain the pattern and chronology of the attacks, the rebels started armed resistance after their non-violent demonstrations were targeted by Assad’s army. Many from the military defected and formed what is now called the Syrian Free Army.

It is speculated that there are western governments, including the US and other countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar that are arming the Syrian opposition — though not in a way to match Assad’s brutality.

Difficult Moves

Not much hope should rest on the peace plan that former UN general secretary Kofi Annan has been trying to resuscitate for some time now. That is a dead horse and no amount of goodwill will suffice. For a peace plan to work, the basic fact is that both sides in the conflict agree that there is a conflict/issue and express interest towards resolving their grievances. Here, the Assad regime maintains that it is a domestic problem being fanned by vested interests from outside the country. As for the Syrian opposition, it has evolved from a peaceful, well-meaning protest to a headless armed resistance that is assuming dangerous proportions with every passing day.

The best shot the West and Arab countries have is to get Russia to turn around and work towards stopping the bloodshed in Syria. However, that is easier said than done. Vladimir Putin is back as Russian president and a lot will depend on how Obama and Putin strike a chord.  The role of the Arab nations is important. It is to be seen if they have a plan for Syria in the event of Assad’s fall. Rooting for it without a far-sighted plan will only be a gift to the Islamist forces that thrive in such situations. Iran can also not be kept out of the picture for the simple fact that it is a powerful regional force and has considerable clout in Syria.

Address Flaws

The crisis in Syria is a reflection of one of the many problems that exposes the limitations of the UN and many other international agreements.  This is an apt instance to show the unflinching and enviable power the P5 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) enjoys needs to be questioned.  If Russia and China had not objected to resolutions and other actions on the Syrian government, by now it is probable that things would have looked better in Syria. The crisis in Syria is a lesion and needs to be treated at the earliest.  However, the cause for it needs to be addressed and the required corrections made.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on June 19, 2012)