Friday 16 March 2012

Syria: What needs to change after year of protests

After 12 months and nearly 10,000 deaths, an end to the crisis devastating Syria remains elusive.
Think pieces in today’s Arab print and electronic media by two authoritative political analysts chart dissimilar ways out of the conflict between a regime determined to cling to power at all costs and a revolt that months ago passed the point of no return.
One analyst sees the key to a solution in a meeting of minds on a non-Islamist replacement of Assad’s regime, the other in Aleppo and Damascus joining the revolution.
The two analysts are:
  • Raghida Dergham, a U.S.-based Lebanese American columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat who was named one of the most powerful Arab women in 2011, and
  • Muhammad Mukhtar Shinqiti, a Mauritanian scholar, poet, writer and published author who was director of the Islamic Center of South Plains, Lubbock, Texas, between 2001 and 2008. He is currently doing research at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies while working on his Doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.

The gist of Ms. Dergham’s perspective as written for today’s al-Hayat:
With former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan joining the bazaar with Syria, “European strategies have started to dissipate and fragment and American standpoints to regress.”
On the European front, for instance, a policy memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations, authored by Julien Barnes-Dacey and titled “Syria: Towards a political solution” says:
With violence escalating and Bashar al-Assad looking unlikely to be pushed from power soon, it is becoming more urgent than ever to find a political solution in Syria. But it is also increasingly apparent that a political resolution is, at minimum, dependent on Russian acquiescence.
“Without pressure from Moscow, the regime will neither relent in its use of violence nor enter into a political process. Thus engaging with Russia may be the only way of halting the bloodshed and stopping Syria from falling into a deep and prolonged civil war. The newly appointed UN-Arab League representative to Syria, Kofi Annan, should therefore begin a political process that gives Russia a lead role and includes direct negotiations with the regime despite the horrific nature of its crimes.
“An international contact group that includes representatives of Russia, the regime and the opposition, as well Syria’s neighbors, should meet in order to set out the parameters for a ceasefire. This should be followed by talks, ideally in Syria, which are not preconditioned on Assad’s immediate demise. Europe, for its part, must solidly back Annan’s efforts, empowering him to lead a political process that concedes to Russian demands for the sake of ending the bloodshed. At the same time, however, it should also continue to strengthen the political opposition, while widening sanctions, to increase the attractiveness of a political solution…
The intended aim of these different measures is to stop the violence and lay the groundwork for a subsequent political transition process. This journey will be messy and many will be disheartened to see short-term leniency granted to the regime and its cronies.
“There is no denying the deep unpleasantness of dealing with Assad and empowering Moscow despite its obstructionist position to date. But it is hard to conceive of any other way of stopping the current bloodshed. Equally, this option could ultimately bear most fruit for those seeking Assad’s downfall. A transition to a political track will empower the opposition and strengthen its ability to finally dislodge a horrific regime.”
On the American front, an example of the regression came last week from veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering at a gala hosted by The National Committee on American Foreign Policy honoring former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry and Coca-Cola board chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent. Pickering said Kofi Annan’s troubleshooting mission was doomed if preconditioned.
In other words, the Europeans and Americans are gradually embracing Moscow’s view that talks with Assad should be without preconditions, which is at odds with the position of the Arab League plan. The latter is modeled on the template fashioned by the Gulf states, under which Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after devolving power to his deputy. The League insists Assad should do the same in Syria.
However, a change in Gulf strategy vis-à-vis Moscow is overdue. Russia is surrounded by five Islamic states. The Islamist tide sweeping the region alarms it. Any acquiescence to Western and Gulf support of a Moslem Brotherhood takeover of the Muslim world is deemed suicidal. The Gulf partners need to recognize this.
Hence the key for a breakthrough in Syria is a prior three-way Syrian-regional-international agreement on a non-Islamist replacement of Assad’s regime.

A sum-up of Shinqiti’s article posted on
Six factors – three internal and three others external – allowed Assad to maintain his grip on power in the face of the year-old revolution.
Internally, he was buoyed by:
  1. a strategy to wear out the revolution by installment – Deraa, then Homs, then Idlib and Hama – when revolution itself remained on the periphery, failing to mobilize Syria’s two largest cities, namely Damascus and Aleppo
  2. an impressive cohesion of his political collective. Not one senior minister, politician or ambassador chose to desert him.
  3. painting the national revolt as sectarian sedition.

On the external front, the regime was shored up by:
  1. the opposition’s failure to unite
  2. Turkey’s empty talk and failure to provide military and logistical support to the rebels
  3. Russia and China.

The Syrian revolution can turn the tables on the regime and change the balance of power by two ways:
  • by getting Damascus and Aleppo residents to take to the streets en masse and support their brothers in Homs, Deraa, Idlib and on the outskirts of their two cities, and
  • by getting the political elite around Assad to desert him.

The Egyptians won their revolution when 12 million of them took to the streets on the same day. The Libyans won theirs when political and military elites turned their back on Muammar Gaddafi.