The question of syria

While the Arab Spring led to the sacking of several dictators, Bashar al-Assad has held on to power even as the clashes

Published: 05th February 2012 11:09 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:50 PM   |  A+A-


On Saturday the United Nations saw Russia and China vetoing a West and Arab League-backed resolution against Syria demanding President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of the bloody crackdown on his people. Hours before the UN meeting deadly attacks carried out by Syrian security forces (Syrian authorities have blamed the opposition) killed more than 200 people in Homs, 160 kilometres north of Damascus. Though Russia and China acted on expected lines, India voting in favour of the resolution was a surprise. Known to usually abstain from such moves, India has asked for a peaceful resolution that sees Syria also being involved in the process. India has made the right move by showing that it is capable of taking tough decisions at an international forum. This is also a statement that shows it has earned a UNSC seat.

With Syria being the vortex of the so-called Arab Spring, the West has on its hands a crisis it wished had not begun. Not only has the West lost its set pieces on the board, it has seen the rise of ‘radical’ forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Add to this the chaos spreading to other countries and an all-too assertive Iran — the West (primarily the United States of America) is having what seems to be a series of nightmares.

However, anyone who has observed Syria over the decades will not be surprised at the turn of events. After all the US preferred to keep Bashar in power in spite of the atrocities he carried out in the region and against the US. Bashar has killed thousands of his people and sent militants into Iraq to kill American contractors; he has armed the Hezbollah, supported the Hamas, is an Iran ally and has adversely influenced the developments in Lebanon.

But Washington maintained the stand that the known devil is better than the unknown. The fear of a more radical outfit gaining prominence in Damascus or of the country descending into chaos has vanished and now the US is in the forefront of demanding the ouster of Assad. The factors that have led to Washington’s change of mind are not clear yet. Davis Schenker, a former Levant director at the Pentagon, was of the opinion that America’s policy towards Syria has always been one that has not yet been developed.

The Survivor

Bashar al-Assad has been able to hold fort to date mainly for two reasons. First is the relationship he has maintained with the West and other countries, importantly Russia. The second is Assad’s minority plank. Assad, a Ba’ath Party member and Alawi, has made sure to infuse pride among the minorities in the country that their president, ruthless as he may be, is one among them and has protected them from the majority Sunni community which otherwise would have relegated them to the margins of society. There are also sections in Syria that feel that he has lent respect and honour to a country that was otherwise not taken seriously in the region. Bashar al-Assad is known to have told his close associates that he is of the view that if a ruler provides the people with what they want, he can rule without hassles. According to Bashar he will provide the people of Syria the basics — a home, a job and a car — and in return they will let his rule go on unopposed, unquestioned.

Lessons Learnt

The prolonged crisis (the unrest started in March last year) in Syria shows that unlike earlier when the United States of America (without considering the option of approaching the United Nations) thought it fit to invade Iraq on its hunt for the non-existent WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) the scene has now changed. The economic slowdown, the rise of other economies and the international condemnation Washington has received for its exploits in West Asia, both from within the country and outside, has played a role in its tempering its ways. It has realised that its trigger-happy enforcement of democracy around the world has earned it more enemies than friends.

The experience in Egypt and Libya has taught the world, especially the West, important lessons on what not to do in Syria. While in Egypt (after some initial reluctance) the US supported the opposition movement, the result is not what was expected. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, through the ballot, has caught them unawares. In Libya, the West managed to oust and capture Muammar Gaddafi but the Libyan Transitional Council has not been able to fulfil the promise of stability and peace, vital for a country that has witnessed a revolution.

Russia Factor

Russia has been criticised for being the stumbling block for a UN Security Council resolution against Syria. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennadi Gatilov has said that the move to ouster Assad was a “doomed” one and instead the call should be to fight the opposition forces that are causing violence in the country. Syria is a big client of Russia’s arms industries and this lobby has held great sway over the Kremlin. Syria yearly buys close to $700 million worth of arms from Russia. The unrest in the region has caused a dip in the sales and Russia has already cancelled lucrative deals with Iran after reaching an agreement with Washington.

Political analysts observing Kremlin believe that elections in Russia will change its approach towards Syria and any future UNSC resolution. Many say that President Dmitry Medvedev was ‘fooled’, by the West, into believing action was necessary in Libya. Moreover, Prime Minister Valdmir Putin, who is likely to be the next president, has not minced his words while criticising the West (US) for creating unrest in Russia. He is also doubtful of the West’s intentions in West Asia. Russia is also not buying the argument put forward by the West that unless it supports the opposition movement in Syria, it will not be a frontrunner when the new government is formed in Damascus. Russia’s defence, a valid one, is that if the current government falls it will be followed by a civil war and sectarian violence leading to chaos, as has been witnessed in other countries in the region. Assad’s iron hand over the political system has rendered it without a visible and efficient opposition that can take over once he is gone. The civil war will create large-scale migration into neighbouring countries further worsening the situation.


There is an urgent need for a plan to stop the violence and bloodshed in Syria because the longer the unrest continues the greater are the chances of sectarian wars breaking out between the Sunni majority and the Alawite, Christian, Kurd minorities.

The United Nations will not be able to bring peace to the country once things deteriorate to that level and we can expect something at par or even worse than what is now being witnessed in Iraq and Libya.

Given this one cannot sit idle and watch as Assad or as he claims, ‘extremist elements’ continue to unleash violence and kill innocent people throughout the country. The West has its interests and so do Russia and other Arab nations. There are pitfalls in a UNSC resolution against the Assad regime but if one were to weigh both the options, taking action is better than not taking any action at all. The world has to choose between the lesser of the two evils in order to check a brutal dictator and give Syrians the freedom and peace they deserve.

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