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Turmoil in the Arab world

Publication Date : 01-08-2012


By the time this article appears it is possible, though not certain, that President Assad’s heavily armed forces will have re-established control of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and its commercial and economic hub.

What is certain, however, is that hundreds if not thousands will be added to the list of over 20,000 Syrians who have lost their lives in the last 17 months of conflict. The heavy artillery and helicopter gunships that Assad has deployed will add tens if not hundreds of millions to the estimated billions of dollars of damage to property and businesses that has already been inflicted.

Assad’s beleaguered regime shows no signs yet of being willing to accept the rebel demand for him to step down. There are good reasons for this. The Alawite sect to which Assad belongs comprises no more than 10 to 12 per cent of the population in Syria, as against the Sunnis who comprise 70 per cent of the population. The Assad dynasty, which came into being when Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 in a bloodless coup termed the Corrective Revolution, was notable particularly in the time of the older Assad for his ruthlessness and for building the entire ruling structure around Alawite loyalists. Under Hafez al-Assad Syria did make some economic progress, but he is now most remembered for the 1982 order to attack the town of Homs to eliminate Muslim Brotherhood adherents, resulting in the death of more than 30,000 people.

A similar destruction of Homs has occurred now under Bashar. If Assad steps down now there is little hope that he will be able to survive and more importantly, since he has used an Alawite militia — the Shabiha — to attack the Sunni majority rebels, there is even less hope that the Alawites will be spared once their grip on the levers of power is gone.

Assad’s days may well be numbered. There have been defections from within his inner circle. A bomb was planted in the meeting at which his senior-most aides were present and which killed the defence minister and the head of the National Security Bureau. Clearly his security forces are no longer the trustworthy bulwark that they had been in the past.

There are reports prompted by a statement by the Russian ambassador in Paris that Russia would offer him and his family asylum, but these have been denied. There are other reports that Assad may decide to retreat to the Alawite enclave along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Both seem improbable and it is likely, as has been suggested by one Syria expert, that “Assad might fall but he will do his darnedest to leave behind a burned down country.” An equally important problem might be that the Syrian insurgents may well be united in wanting Assad’s ouster but there may be little else on which they agree. Assad’s departure may not herald peace and calm in Syria but rather a return to a conflict between the secular Sunnis, the extremist Sunnis — some with al-Qaeda connections — and the minorities. No easy solution is in sight.

In the meanwhile it is clear that the struggle to oust Assad has sectarian dimensions and that, as is perhaps inevitable in such situations, the extremist Sunnis have come to dominate substantial segments of the insurgency. It was equally inevitable, perhaps, that they have the support not only of the Sunni states of the Persian Gulf — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc — but also of the Sunnis in Iraq, who after years of ruling the roost there now find themselves relatively powerless in a Shia-majority and Shia-dominated Iraq.

Al-Qaeda in South Asia may, by American estimates, have been decimated, but it or its franchisees have certainly gained a fresh lease of life in the heart of the Middle East. Spurred by the Syrian uprising and no doubt reinforced by the flow of funds and arms into the region, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced a new offensive called "Breaking down walls" and gave it concrete shape by launching 40 coordinated attacks across Iraq that killed more than 100 people.

As a result, Syrians who have tried to seek shelter in Iraq have been treated virtually as enemies confined to camps under effective arrest. More than 120,000 Syrians have fled their country, and given the strong family ties between Syrians and Iraqis and the shelter Syria provided to the million of Iraqis who fled during the Iraq war, Syrians had every right to expect better treatment at the hands of their Iraqi brethren. But this has not happened and the majority have had to find shelter in Turkey since even Jordan, given its own turbulent political dynamic and difficult economic situation, has been reluctant to allow the Syrians in.

Turkey has certainly burnished its credentials in the Arab world with its support for Assad’s ouster and for the generally pro-Arab stance of the Erdogan government, but it is now hard-pressed by the inflow of Syrian refugees, by its role as the principal conduit for arms and other supplies for the Syrian insurgents, and most importantly by its concerns about the activities of the PKK in the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. It has to manoeuvre carefully to ensure that turmoil in Syria and Iraq does not lead to a resurgence of the Kurdish problem that has for long been the main issue between Turkey and these two neighbours.

Internationally, even while Russia now seems to accept that Assad is not likely to survive, it has no intention of changing its policy of opposing any move in the UN Security Council to sanction a Libya-like no-fly zone or other military action in Syria.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has now rather belatedly asked for the convening of an extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on Aug 14 and 15, at which one assumes that the main subject for discussion will be the effort that the Islamic ummah can make to help resolve the Syrian problem. This is not likely to go anywhere. The Syrian delegate will be joined by the Iranians in opposing any call for Assad to step down or to grant some kind of recognition to the "freedom fighters".

Unfortunately the summit will only serve to highlight the inability of the ummah to achieve any thing worthwhile in resolving problems such as Syria or repairing the sectarian rifts that have been brought to the fore not only by Syria and Iraq but also by developments in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s own Eastern Province.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.


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