By Madhav Nalapat
The groups circling for if the Assad regime falls are no solution to the country’s problems. The U.S. and EU should steer clear, Indian Decade contributor Madhav Nalapat writes from Syria.
Even in Dubai, as I’m waiting to catch a flight to Damascus, it’s clear that the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies have adopted a strategy of constricting Syria in such a way that the Assad regime falls. An Emirates Airlines desk dealing with the issue of 96-hour transit visas for those wanting a stopover in Dubai advised me that while citizens of India could take advantage of the facility, those from Syria could not.
A media delegation from Delhi had to spend the night in the airport waiting room, apparently because the Syrian Tourism Ministry’s request for overnight accommodation was denied at the last minute, when the group was already airborne from Delhi. Even the airport money changers have been co-opted into the strategy, with many no longer exchanging other currencies for Syrian pounds. Several international credit cards have reportedly ceased to work in Syria, while international flights to and from its cities have been reduced to a trickle. It’s small wonder that tourist arrivals have plunged. Almost all European and allied states have issued advisories to their citizens against travelling to Syria and, as a consequence, even getting insured for the visit is proving a problem.
Trying to make Syria tourist friendly had been one the most visible of Bashar Assad’s modest reforms since taking over from his father Hafez a decade ago. Damascus, Aleppo and other cities have been spruced up, with new hotels and diversions that include clubs for the weary and the adventurous to while away the hours in. The country can also boast a visible history dating back millennia, and in location after location there are the physical signs of past greatness, most notably the Roman ruins near Sweida and Shahba.
About 10 percent of Syria’s 24 million people are Christian, while Shia (including the Assad family) account for 12 percent. But it’s the rule by a Shiite family of a country that has a Sunni majority that seems to have impelled Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join hands with the United States and the EU in seeking regime change in Damascus. In the case of the U.S. and the EU, the target is really Iran, with Syria being the low-hanging fruit that needs to be harvested before turning the full attention of the alliance on Tehran.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that “means are, after all, everything.” And it is the means now being employed by the Ankara-Doha-Riyadh trio to prize Syria loose from the Assads that may create immense headaches in the future, both for themselves and for their friends. Since mid-2011, the three have reportedly been assisting both financially and logistically any group in Syria that seeks the overthrow of Assad. This includes those who seek the fall of any stable governance structure because of their links to organized crime and terrorism. By not discriminating between such elements (some of which have links to the narcotics trade) and those seeking political change for reasons of ethics and ideology, the trio are empowering disparate groups of individuals as impossible to control as many of the armed gangs that have created their own fiefs in Libya.
Indeed, if the Assad regime does ride out the current international effort at its destruction, the reason will be Libya. The descent of that country into chaos after its “liberation” by NATO has alarmed even Syria’s Sunni majority. They may want to see a co-religionist take over the top job in the country, but not if that involves a Libya-style trajectory. It’s telling that even in the less than neutral atmosphere of the BBC’s Doha Debates, more than 55 percent of the Syrians polled late last year wanted Assad to stay. This isn’t out of any affection for the man, his family or his regime, but over fear of the alternatives that are presenting themselves. The so-called Istanbul Council is seen for what it is, namely a rootless band of expatriate Syrians under French tutelage, Qataris largesse and Turkish hospitality, while the Free Syrian Army exists as a coherent body only in theory. Any of several dozen armed groups – operating for the most disparate of reasons – claim to fall under that umbrella group. This is especially so these days, when it can be a passport to funds from the trio.
Despite its backing for religious groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah (because of their armed opposition to Israel), the Syrian regime is essentially secular, with different sects and faiths having equal rights. The country’s Christians, together with the Shia Alawi, are terrified at the prospect of the Friends of Syria coming to power, aware as they are that the ideologically motivated (as distinct from purely mercenary) component of this band are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that makes little secret of its contempt for a secular state, and which would like Wahhabi Islam to be the sole religion of the state, with other sects and faiths falling in line as “dhimmis” (basically those who surrender to the “protection” of the ruling faith). And while there have indeed been about 9,000 deaths since the troubles began some 15 months ago, what remains unreported is that a significant number, if not the majority, of these are members of the security services and their relatives.
Ultimately, it’s the “Libyan” character of the armed anti-Assad groups that have denied them support within the broader Sunni population in Syria. Had the U.S. and the EU stopped seeing armed gangs as the solution to the Syrian problem, and instead focused on ensuring that the May 7 polls take place in a transparent and fair manner, they would achieve regime change much faster. After forty years in power, the Assad family has overstayed its welcome in this country, but it will take some more years before the mechanisms of democracy work sufficiently smoothly to turf out the family-run Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party from power.
Exactly as the Taliban are going around Afghanistan claiming to be the only group that is really challenging the NATO occupation, those who aren’t exactly backers of democracy are gaining in popularity simply because they are being targeted by the United States, the EU and the trio. The people of Syria are proud of their heritage, and don’t welcome outside interference. Sadly, neither French President Nicolas Sarkozy nor British Prime Minister David Cameron and his fellow traveler U.S. president Barack Obama seem to have absorbed the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq. The “success” of the Libyan operation (even at the price of sending that country into chaos) has energized them into seeking the same result in Syria, and by the same methods. This is a mistake.
I’ve been skeptical of the Arab Spring from the start, instead terming it a Wahhabi Winter. I was also critical of the way Muammar Gaddafi was turfed out, predicting that Libya would in a few years become a base for terrorist operations against Europe. Today, the same flawed reasoning that led to the breakup of Libya into a congeries of fiefdoms is creating the conditions in Syria for instability that will spread across the region.
Sending weapons back towards Ankara is as easy as sending them from Turkey into Syria. And it’s much easier to rouse the Shiites in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (where they are subject to severe discrimination) than it would be to persuade the Sunnis of Syria to en masse go against the Assad regime.
Although slow in comparison to the pyrotechnics of Benghazi and Tripoli, the best way to ensure the coming to office of a regime in Damascus that retains the secular character of the Ba'ath Party sans its adventurism with Israel would be to trust the ballot box. Ankara, Doha and Riyadh need to be reined in, and the U.S. and the EU should multiply rather than cut back on their contacts with Syria, in particular with private industry in that country.
The sanctions in the 1990s against Iraq only succeeded in severely degrading the lives of the population of that country, without touching Saddam Hussein. The present mix of U.S.-EU-trio policies will create a sectarian blowback that could ultimately include the arming of disaffected groups within Turkey and the GCC. It won’t succeed in removing the Assad regime, even if it causes immense economic hardship. Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama shouldn’t forget that the best weapon in the armory of the democracies is, well, democracy.