Freedom for the Syrians - is it inevitable?

By Yamin Zakaria

London: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya fell; however, Syria and Bahrain seem to be defying that trend, where signs of regime change look remote; both nations are governed by the minority sect. Bahrain is dominated by the minority Sunni regime over the Shi'ite masses, and the situation is the reverse in Syria. In the case of Bahrain, the momentum for the protests is receding, whereas in Syria, the violence is escalating; to date it is estimated 15,000 people are dead.

With the systematic murder of 108 civilians including 49 children in Houla and subsequently 78 killed in the town of al-Qubair in a similar manner, the cycle of violence has escalated to new heights - naturally the peace negotiated earlier by Kofi Anan has been nullified. The harrowing pictures of children soaked in blood have been published in some of the Arabic newspapers; according to the UN the victims were summarily executed. In response, many countries have expelled Syrian diplomats. Note the contrast of response to the Israelis committing massacre of civilians in Gaza, and despite the overwhelming evidence, it was as usual, 'defenceless' Israel 'defending' itself with much greater firepower.

It's unlikely that the Syrian regime was directly involved in the massacres which would be an own goal, but the government has the ultimate responsibility to maintain security, and so far, nobody has been brought to account. Like the old Gaddafi regime, the Syrian regime dismissed it as the works of foreign terrorists, the ubiquitous Al-Qaeda, designed to tarnish the Syrian regime; everyone is playing the Al-Qaeda card. The numerous reports from witnesses suggested the culprits were the infamous Shabiha militiamen; they are pro- Assad Alawites and the victims of Houla and al-Qubair were predominantly Sunnis. This adds further fuel to the tension of Shia-Sunni conflict escalating into a full scale civil war. Across the border, Lebanon has already started to get dragged into the conflict, as skirmishes have broken out between the pro and anti Assad factions that also reflect Shia-Sunni schism to some extent.

This potential conflagration of Shia-Sunni conflict breaking out in the region has been the main reason cited by the West against military intervention. The former UN General Secretary, Kofi Anan, echoed this, unlike Libya, Syria will not implode but explode he stated at a conference. Surely, this argument was more applicable to Iraq, where the Shia and Sunni identity is far more pronounced and the population is almost evenly split. Yet, such a conflict that has been lingering on at a low level has not escalated to a full scale civil war, despite numerous attempts by outsiders to induce this, coupled with the actions of certain sectarian zealots.

Others have pointed to political uncertainty as the reason for the reluctance to engage militarily; the rebels are fragmented and Assad could be replaced by a more hostile Sunni dominated regime. Hence, the Americans (and their key ally Israel) may see the Alawite based Assad regime as the best option to continue with.

Some have suggested arming the resistance and only the French have called for direct military action, and without the backing of other major nations, that is unlikely to materialise. Especially as the Russians and the Chinese are still resisting calls to isolate Syria further and endorse additional UN action.

Hence, the question is who will win, the rebels or the regime or will there be a compromise solution?

Given that the pro and anti government groups, along with the neutral faction, are almost evenly split; the final outcome is unlikely to be determined by these groups. In the absence of international players getting involved militarily, it is the regional powers like Turkey and Iran that have the ability to influence the outcome of this uprising in Syria.

Turkey, a predominantly Sunni country could intervene, but it would need some sort of mandate from the Arab and Islamic countries, this would help Turkey to gain leadership of the Islamic world. Concurrently, Turkey would also settle its score with Kurdish resistance groups operating from within Syria itself. If Turkey could achieve peace and stability it would also enhance its position within NATO and Europe.

Iran too has been vying for that position of acquiring leadership of the Islamic world particularly with its anti-Israeli and anti-US rhetoric; however it has continued to support the Syrian regime to its own detriment in the long term and exposing its underlying sectarian nature. Iran has shown no signs of taking an objective approach to the issue unlike its stance towards Libya and Egypt, where it correctly advised the leadership to stand down and give the people a voice.

Despite the Arab spring, the uprising in Syria is not surprising, when you cross the Syrian border into Jordan or go further into Saudi and the Gulf states, it seems like a trip through a time machine, going from a country that looks like something from Eastern Europe in the 50/60s living under a dictatorship, to a modern western like nation of Jordan, where you get the shopping malls, KFCs, McDonalds, free access to Internet, the youths wearing the latest clothes and driving cars that were manufactured in the last 10 years, and most important where freedom to voice your opinion exists to some degree. I recall being approached and questioned (interrogated) by the secret police, when I was merely waiting for a Bus in the Damascus town of Muhajirin, on a Saturday night.

With the information age, the masses and especially the youths of Syria, desire the same things: jobs, political freedom, material wealth, political stability and the rule of law instead of nepotism. Hence, even if the current regime manages to quell this rebellion, it will not end the inevitable push towards freedom and democracy that manifests within the religious and cultural paradigm of the Syrian nation. The question remains - what will be the final price paid in Syrian blood?

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2012 on page no. 16

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