By Riad Kahwaji
Over ten months have passed and the Syrian uprising has maintained its strong momentum without a near end in sight. The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad has signed an Arab-League plan aimed at quelling the violence in the country that has claimed the lives of over 5,000 people and injured thousands others. However, most observers and analysts in the Middle East have cast doubt on the sincerity and seriousness of the Syrian Baath Party regime to implement the Arab League plan. The suppression of the Syrian public uprising has all but increased since the signing of the Arab plan on December 19. Expectations by most regional experts and officials are that sooner or later the Syrian file will be referred to the United Nations Security Council, and a Turkish-led international military intervention would be inevitable. However, the resilience of the Syrian regime has surprised many, but so did the determination of the Syrian people who seems to have reached the point of no-return in its uprising to topple the Assad regime and end the half century old Baath Party rule.
Iran appears to be the most anxious party over the course of events in Syria. Syria has been the other strong side of the Iranian axis in the region that has been engaged in a Cold War against a U.S.-led alliance that includes several Western and Arab states. Iran has worked on building this axis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in addition to Syria includes two strong non-state actors: Hamas and Hizbullah. Syria has been the bridge for Iran in the Arab world and losing the Assad regime would break this bridge and disconnect Iran from its strongest regional player: Hizbullah in Lebanon. So the collapse of the Syrian regime will destroy Iran’s current strategic position in the region that is the fruit of two decades of hard work and billions of dollars. Burhan Galyoun, the head of the Syrian National Council that groups all main opposition forces has already stated that the first order of business for the next government of a Syria after Assad will be to end the strategic relations that Damascus has with both Iran and Hizbullah.
Tehran seems to continue to bet on the Syrian regime for one main reason and that is it does not have any other options. “Iran will back Assad regime to the very end,” asserted an Iranian expert who also advices the presidency in Tehran. He pointed out that Iran believes Assad could still survive the current crisis, providing that the United Nations or the West do not intervene militarily. “The Assad regime has learned a valuable lesson from (the late deposed Libya leader) Moammar Ghaddafi, and that is so long as it has a monopoly on the absolute use of violence it will not fall no matter how many people protest and march,” the Iranian expert said. “Ghaddafi could have won and remained in power if it wasn’t for the NATO intervention,” he added. So the Syrian regime’s strategy to quell the uprising is to use full military force against the opposition, and to use all its cards and connections to prevent an international intervention. Even though Assad is playing for time, the time factor is playing against the regime as a result of the strong determination shown by the people despite the ferocity of the Syrian military and security forces in dealing with protestors and opposition figures.
The Syrian opposition in turn is becoming more organized internally and externally. Faced with hesitation by some international powers to back an intervention in Syria, the Syrian opposition leaders have decided to become more self-sufficient. Efforts to raise money to self-sustain their activities outside and inside Syria have proven successful so far. Donations by a large base of wealthy Syrian businessmen and supporters have brought in millions of dollars that will enable the opposition to better organize itself and gain international recognition and support. However, the danger of delaying international intervention would compel the Syrian opposition to become more self-dependent in their internal efforts to fight back the Syrian military onslaught. Thousands of Syrian troops appear to have defected and are now organizing in small groups around the country, engaging the regime’s forces in guerrilla warfare. But the fighting is taking more on the form of sectarian clashes between the predominantly Alawite forces of the regime and the largely Sunni opposition forces. If unchecked by a swift international intervention to end the conflict, Syria will most likely slide into a sectarian war between the Alawite minority and Sunni majority.
Expectations now are that the Syrian regime will probably fail to implement the Arab plan, and subsequently will miss its last chance to prevent the internationalization of the conflict. As of January 2012, the Arab seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will go to Morocco after it was held by Lebanon for 2 years. Due to the strong Syrian-Iranian influence in the current Lebanese government, the Lebanese envoy to the UN opposed any resolutions against Syria. But with Morocco, the situation will be much different and the Arab League would be able to present a strong resolution against the Syrian regime. Many diplomats and analysts believe a resolution proposed by the Arabs at the UNSC will not face much resistance from China and Russia and will most likely be passed. Whenever the UNSC refers the UN Human Rights report on Syria to the War Crimes Court and issues a resolution calling for the creation of safe-corridors or implementation of a no-fly zone over northern Syria, then Turkey would have the needed international political cover to lead a military alliance that will establish a safe-zone for the defected Syrian forces to organize and will also prompt many Syrian military and government figures to turn against the Assad regime.
Fear of international players, including Israel, that an international intervention could create another Libya scenario inside Syria is not fully true. Hesitant Syrian officials who still support the regime will likely reconsider their position whenever they see the regime’s strategy that is based on preventing intervention, fails. This could bring a quick end to the crisis. Since most armed opposition groups are defected Syrian soldiers working under a military leadership, there will not be any chaos as was the case in the period that followed the collapse of the Libyan regime. There will likely be an orderly transition of both political and military powers in Syria. However, delaying the intervention could lead to the rise of armed Sunni militias to work separately from the organized Free Syrian Army, and this would lead to the spread of chaos before and after the collapse of the Assad regime. Reports out of Syria indicate that the current sanctions by many countries and the civil-disobedience action by the opposition have started to take its toll on the regime. All what is needed is a little push from the international community to bring an end to a regime that was rightly described recently by a U.S. official as a “dead man walking.”
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA