Syria Stares Into the Abyss

By Hassan Mneimneh

When it began last March, the Syrian revolution appeared to be a textbook example for a peaceful uprising by a people united against state brutality. For weeks, videos documented the determination of the mostly youthful protesters, chanting their demands for freedom and political participation only to be faced with bullets, arrests, torture, and execution.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted with a series of gestures whose insincerity was swiftly revealed. A few hundred prisoners were released while thousands more were arrested, with many dying in custody. The decades-old state of emergency was lifted but the regime, in the name of a "security solution," went on ruthlessly crushing the protests.

Publicly, the Syrian government asserts that "foreign powers" are instigating an insurgency in Syria to punish it for its support of what it calls the anti-Israel "resistance." In private meetings with non-Sunni regional leaders, the regime promotes the notion that this is also a conflict between a "hegemonic Sunnism" (about three-fourths of Syrians are Sunni) and historically persecuted minorities. But support for the revolution cuts across all socio-economic strata and ethnic or religious groups. Conversely, the Assad regime has resorted to the Alawi community (approximately one-eighth of the population) as a primary pool for support; still, it neither encompasses this community in its totality, nor is limited to it.

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The Syrian revolutionaries' commitment to nonviolence was premised on expectations that they would be able to divide the security apparatus through insubordination and defections and that the world community would act to stop the massacres. Neither expectation was realized.

The revolutionaries have underestimated the ability of the regime to leverage ethnic and religious community cleavages. Recruits from the Alawi community are playing a key role in the repression. Defections are happening, but remain at about 10 percent of the military. The defectors, with no unified leadership, are unable to defeat the regime, but are used by it as proof of being engaged in combating "armed gangs."

Even more dramatically, the international community was unable to provide the revolutionaries the support they needed. Most observers remain wary as to the implications of regime change in Syria, and indeed the revolutionaries have yet to offer a convincing post-Assad scenario to alleviate these concerns (including those of the regime's internal constituencies). The Arab League was able to overcome substantial differences between its members on ways to manage the Syrian crisis, but as a result provided a watered-down plan that failed to satisfy the revolutionaries, and was still rejected by the regime. Meanwhile, the transatlantic alliance, the sole plausible agency for decisive support, is hamstrung by the economic crisis and a sharp decline in public tolerance for military interventions. Many strategists compare the case for Western intervention in Syria unfavorably with Libya: the latter, they argue, was "low-risk and high-reward," whereas the former is precisely the reverse. Finally, Assad continues to be of significant value for both Iran and Russia.

All this has emboldened the Syrian regime; it is asserting that it will regain its international standing once its "security solution" is complete. Yet, with all its lethal superiority, it has been unable to achieve military victory. It has, however, managed to seriously undermine the revolutionaries' initial commitment to nonviolence and inclusiveness. Against the protestations of many militants, the Syrian revolution has in large part become an armed uprising. This in turn allows the regime to "expose" the revolution as a violent sectarian insurgency, in order to justify resorting to even harsher measures, including arguably engineering violent sectarianism. The Assad regime's actions may not secure its survival, but they will ensure the unraveling of Syria as a nation-state, with deadly repercussions across the region.

Russia and China's veto of the latest UN Security Council resolution amounts to a green light for the escalation of the Syrian regime's homicidal campaign - or, in the words of Qatar's foreign minister, "a license to kill."

The only way to stop Syria from sliding into an abyss now is for the transatlantic alliance to assert moral and political leadership. The Arab League's original plan - that Assad should delegate his authority to a deputy - had succeeded in trimming the demands of the rebels to yet another token action, but still ran afoul of concerted opposition by Russia and China. The League should now be encouraged to propose a bolder, more principled plan to serve as a baseline.

Obviously, it would be preferable to see this conflict addressed at the highest levels of the United Nations, but given the entrenched positions of Moscow and Beijing, that is unlikely. However, the Arab League's position would also provide a mandate on its own for the transatlantic alliance to investigate next steps. It would also be worth preserving silence as to which steps are would be categorically excluded since the Syrian regime's killing machine has been reinvigorated by statements of restraint from Washington.

The Assad family's decades-long stranglehold on power has been largely based on a fear-instilling aura of power. The Syrian revolutionaries have broken through the wall of fear. Their ultimate success depends on denying the regime the ability to re-erect it. They will not be able to succeed without Western help.

Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

(AP Photo)

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