Mar 13th 2012

Stopping Syria’s Descent into Hell

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Syria continues its long, slow descent into hell, with violence and tragedy showing no let up. By now, one year into this horror, it has become clear that neither side can win an easy victory, reaffirming the adage that there can be "no victor and no vanquished.”

In countries, like Syria, plagued by deep divisions, several scenarios may play out. Scenario #1:  There can be repressive rule by one group over the others (Syria, like its neighbor Iraq, has tried that—and some believe Iraq may be heading there again). Scenario #2: There can be a prolonged civil war (Lebanon lived through that). Scenario #3: There can be an uneasy truce leading to a somewhat stable modus vivendi among the groups (that's where Lebanon is now). Scenario #4: There can be a full-fledged democracy, with full national integration and citizenship rights guaranteed for all. 

At the present time, Syria is stuck somewhere between scenarios #1 and #2. 

For its part, the regime has behaved in an abominable manner.  When faced initially with a largely non-violent protest movement, they used brutal repression. This only spurred on the opposition which then, in response, resorted to weapons taking on the characteristics of a violent insurgency. This only played into the regime's hands, justifying, at least in their minds, the use of even more brutal and deadly force.

Recognizing that some change was required, the regime has proposed a series of "faux" reform initiatives. Because they were introduced by diktat and were so transparently designed to protect the regime's authority, these efforts have been rejected by the opposition as either "too little too late" or just plain fraudulent.

On the one hand, the regime is more like a military junta, than a government. And, for its part, the ruling Ba’ath Party is an ossified shell governed by a corrupt clique, and administered by apparatchiks who are oftentimes more ideologues or fearful functionaries than public servants. 

The opposition, such as it is, is dispersed and dysfunctional. There is a coalition of committed exiles who have coalesced into a council. Inside Syria, there are opposition figures and groupings that have been operating for decades facing down repression, but still convening on occasion to voice their views. They have been joined by a loose coordinating committee of activists operating in many cities. It is this group that has been responsible for organizing the street protests and sending information out of the country. More recently, the opposition has been joined by groups of officers and soldiers who have turned against the regime, and bands of armed insurgents, some home-grown and others coming into the country from outside. It is these groups who have fueled what has become the armed insurgency.   

What has become painfully clear is that while the regime, due to its behavior, has lost whatever little legitimacy it may have had with a wide swatch of the population, it still retains support from some significant groups.  And the opposition is not yet "ready for prime time” or representative of or accepted by all elements of Syrian society.  And so, this mess becomes increasingly out of control, with no relief in sight. 

More ominously, the conflict, which was at one point a struggle within Syria between competing factions with competing "visions,” has now become a regional and international conflict over Syria with East/West, Arab/Iranian, and sectarian dimensions overlapping.  And so, just as the opposition has drawn support from members of the Arab League, Turkey, and the West, the regime has been emboldened by support it continues to receive from Russia, China, and Iran and its allies.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire affair is that all involved, and those who are itching to get involved, have had little new to add to the equation.

Those who suggest providing more arms to the opposition have failed to answer the fundamental questions: arms to whom; and toward what end?  Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last week called this “pouring fuel onto a conflagration,” warning of predictable and deadly results. Allies and suppliers of the regime must also be called to account. Syria has "crossed the Rubicon" and a little (or a lot more) repression will not restore "the old order.” More support for the regime only contributes further to the death of the country and its people.

As the situation continues to spiral out of control, adult supervision is desperately needed. And this is a role that the U.S. (with the Arab League and Turkey) and Russia and China can attempt to play.

With scenario #4 nowhere on the horizon, an uneasy truce leading to negotiations that will produce a new governing arrangement may be the best that can be hoped for. It may also be the only available alternative to a long and deadly civil war, with destabilizing regional consequences.

How to get there?

Both sides will need to be pushed, and pushed hard. A cease fire and commitment to negotiations leading to the formation of a new transitional government are essential. At this point, neither the regime nor elements of the opposition will easily accept such an approach.  Emboldened by external support, harboring deep grievances and fears, and believing that victory can still be theirs, they appear eager to fight on. This is where intervention is in order.

Peeling away the layers of the onion, beginning with the U.S., Russians, et al, it must be made clear to the combatants that a continuation of hostilities is not just a "no win proposition" but a danger to regional peace. Acceptance may require incentives, or threats of withholding support. But acceptance is a must. It will not be easy, but neither will the continued descent into civil war.   

A good place to start would be when Arab leaders meet with the Russians this week. Their agreement, whatever it costs, to push and prod both sides to give up their unachievable ambitions, would be a first step toward unwinding this conflict, before it is too late. Getting to first base will be hard, and the steps that follow will be no easier. The situation will require peace-keepers, dealing with rogue elements, and tough negotiations with an ideological regime that will not easily surrender its power. But facing the abyss, what choice is there?   

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