Syria is heading for a bloody, sectarian civil war. The mutual kidnappings, torture, beheadings and displacement of populations taking place between the Sunni and Alawi communities in the central city of Homs – often described as “the capital of the revolution” – send a fearsome signal of what might be in store for the rest of the country.
To avert this descent into hell must surely be the immediate priority of Arab leaders and the international community.
The present Syrian regime has been one of the most durable in the Middle East, lasting for almost half a century since the Ba‘th party seized power in 1963. The Assads – father and son – have ruled since 1970. However, the current crisis poses a particular danger to the regime because, almost for the first time, it faces a conjunction of internal and external challenges.
Of course, external challenges to Syria have been frequent, including Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at expelling Syrian influence as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, and drawing Lebanon into Israel’s orbit; the 1998 crisis, when Syria faced the possibility of a two-front war with Turkey and Israel; and then the biggest challenge of all: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Had it been successful, Syria may well have been the next target.
When Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was murdered in 2005, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon and the Syrian regime threatened with overthrow. In 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon to destroy Syria’s ally, Hizbollah; it then attacked Gaza to destroy another Syrian ally, Hamas.
The mentality of the Syrian regime – and the mind of President Bashar al-Assad himself – has been shaped by these recurrent life-threatening crises. They were largely responsible for making the regime what it is – authoritarian, defensive, brutal, neglectful of political reforms, over-anxious to exercise control over the citizenry, the media, the universities, the economy – indeed over every aspect of society.
Syria is now under extreme pressure, as is Iran, which has for years also faced systematic demonization, intimidation and sanctions. Determined to protect its own nuclear monopoly, Israel, it seems, is attempting to push the United States into war against Iran – and if not war then still more sanctions.
The Syrian regime’s instinct has been to interpret the current uprising as one more conspiracy. Taken by surprise, its immediate response was brutal repression: the use of live fire from the very beginning at Dar‘a in mid-March. No doubt, President Bashar had imagined that his nationalist stance gave him immunity from popular uprisings. But, faced by the escalating crisis, his leadership has been found wanting; his speeches and promises of reform were late and unconvincing. His failure to seize the initiative with radical proposals showed a lack of political imagination. The killings have fatally undermined his legitimacy.
Who are the revolutionaries and what do they want? They are the rural poor, who have suffered from drought and government neglect; the urban poor and small businessmen, crushed by corrupt, crony capitalists close to the centre of power; and the armies of unemployed youth. Like many Arab countries, Syria suffers from a population explosion. In 1965 (when I wrote my first book about Syria) there were 4 million Syrians; today there are 24 million. With a fertility rate of 3.26, the population could reach 46 million within 20 years. These figures are catastrophic. Economic growth simply can’t keep pace.
The revolutionaries want jobs, good governance, a fair distribution of the country’s resources, an end to corruption, arbitrary arrest and police brutality. They want dignity and respect. They have had no experience of democracy and have little knowledge of what it means. About 40 percent of the population are under 14, and only 3 percent are over 65 – with faint memories of a pre-Ba‘th, pre-Assad rule, which in any event wasn’t all that democratic.
Syria needs the intervention of a high-powered, neutral, contact group to stop the killing on both sides. There must be a pause in which tempers are cooled, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are halted, and a climate created in which a real dialogue can take place and real reforms agreed and implemented. The aim must be a peaceful transition to a different sort of regime, with effective guarantees for all sides.
The Arab states and the Western powers are ill-suited for this task. The latter aren’t trusted. Too many of them have taken sides. The United States, in particular, has been discredited by its blind support in the region for Israel. Rather than bringing peace, Washington’s spectacular failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, or indeed its own decades-long conflict with Iran, has prepared the ground for future conflicts.
Who then could form the necessary contact group? My choice would be the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China – countries with real economic and political clout and a strong interest in the region. Brazil, for example, has close historical ties with Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Millions of Brazilians have grand-parents who emigrated from these countries.
As the death toll rises, the thirst for revenge becomes sharper and the sectarian divide deeper. Civil war looms and, with it, the urgent need for measures to avert it.
Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.