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The many dangers threatening Syria

Publication Date : 31-07-2012


The news from Syria has become steadily more troubling and there are apprehensions of full-scale strife centred on the major city of Aleppo, the country’s largest and its commercial centre.

Both government and opposition have deployed heavy military equipment around the city and a tough confrontation may already have begun, threatening severe loss of human life. Already the long-drawn crisis has led to very large numbers of casualties, over 18,000 dead by some counts, and the country is braced for further escalation as the situation around Aleppo deteriorates. Neither side shows sign of relenting or of backing off.

Over the years, the Syrian regime has been ruthless in suppressing civil disaffection, as was seen most notably in 1982 when some tens of thousands lives were lost in a fierce army crackdown on the city of Hama, which had dared to defy Hafez al Assad, president at the time and father of the present leader.

Now, resistance to the regime has spread all over and is not localised as it was three decades ago, and the opposition is armed and organised. Hence the fears that the present military resistance could expand and endure, causing huge damage before it can be finally resolved.

Large numbers of refugees have already fled the country and the exodus can only become more urgent as fighting intensifies. The regime has been badly hit by a suicide attack that killed some of the most notable figures responsible for security in the president’s innermost circle, including some members of his family.

Yet this blow has been absorbed, new functionaries nominated in replacement, and the struggle against the opposition pursued with undiminished vigour.

Internal divisions within the country that have fed the armed strife have become more marked and unbridgeable than ever. As is well known, Syria’s ruling group is drawn largely from the minority Alawite sect of Muslims who have their own customs and beliefs and have historically been in ideological and political opposition to more orthodox followers of Islam.

The many differences among these and other confessional as well as ethnic groups have become sharper and more dangerous as the struggle for ascendancy has taken a new turn, and as those formerly pushed into the margins have made their bid for power. The demand for rule by a democratic majority that has been such a feature of the "Arab Spring" is not to be reconciled with the system of governance in Syria where stability has been obtained through authoritarian severity.

In the present circumstances, as non-democratic rule has come under fierce challenge, social and political cohesion have also come under intolerable strain.

The internal unravelling in Syria has an important external dimension. The refugee exodus has created many problems, humanitarian as well as political. Syria’s small neighbour Lebanon has to cope with a substantial influx across the fragile border: there is a small Alawite population in the northern part of Lebanon, and another in the nearby portions of Turkey, where family and sectarian affinities come into play.

More far-reaching is the issue of displaced persons of Kurdish origin, an especially sensitive matter for Turkey, which has charged Syria with having instigated the Kurdish people in the border areas against the Turkish authorities. This is one of the factors that has strained relations between these two: formerly, they had good mutual understanding and extensive exchanges in matters like trade, with the flourishing Turkish economy providing much support to its next door neighbour, but in the present circumstances economic exchanges are largely held up.

Other immediate neighbours of Syria, too, have been affected by the influx of refugees and by the fear that armed groups might come across in search of sanctuary. Thus there are many dangers to be confronted.

Differences within the region, and with them latent tensions, have become only more marked as the crisis becomes more protracted and more intense. The Arab League tried to broker a peace arrangement between the antagonists, joining forces with the UN for the purpose, but this did not get very far and has long been suspended.

Syria was particularly resentful of the role of some members of the Arab League which it believed were working to oust the Syrian leadership, trying to replicate in Syria what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Within the Middle East, despite the strong hostility from many sides, the Damascus regime is not without support, most notably from Iran and also from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such support emphasises the polarisation of opinion that has taken place and adds to the complications, for Iran is the long-time target of Western hostility and its support can only heighten antipathy for Syria.

To add to the regional tension, periodic threats of direct action against Iran on account of the troubling opacity of its nuclear programme have now drawn from Iran counter-threats of the use of chemical weapons, intended perhaps to show that that country is not entirely helpless in the face of the sabre-rattling directed against it.

At ther international level, sharp differences on Syria have divided the UN Security Council (UNSC) as Western members, with USA in the lead, have tried repeatedly to impose sanctions and have sought to bring concerted international pressure to make Assad’s position untenable. But they have failed to carry the day, for all the members are not with them, notably the two permanent members Russia and China, who have been prepared to exercise their veto in order to head off economic sanctions or any other threatened action under UN aegis.

Russia in particular is determined not to permit a repeat of what happened in Libya where NATO forces with only hazy UN sanction virtually destroyed the Libyan armed forces and forced out Muammar Gaddafi: Russia has a substantial stake in Syria and will not stand by while Syria’s leaders meet the same fate. The West is doing all it can to bypass the political screen erected by Russia and China, so there is a considerable confrontation between the two sides, in some ways reminiscent of the days of the Cold War, with naval fleets keeping an eye on each other in the eastern Mediterranean. Relations between them are thus at a low ebb.

One victim of the situation is the peace plan authored by Kofi Annan, special representative of the UNSC. Western countries, seeking direct intervention through a "Friends of Syria" group outside the UN, do not favour the Annan plan as it tries to draw in all parties and gives an important part to the Assad government. This plan has not achieved much momentum but it remains the most plausible way of approaching the problem. It merits consistent international support.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary


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