W(h)ither Syria?

The current troubles in Syria began almost a year ago.  In that short time the country has gone from a growing interaction with the West and an opening-up economy, to a rising chorus of demands for military intervention to oust President Bashar al-Assad and stop the blood-letting.  It has been a rapid, bewildering degeneration, taking Syria to the brink of economic collapse with its domestic currency almost in freefall, in part a result of sanctions and in part a diminishing hope for resolution, and the edge of an ugly full-scale sectarian showdown. (http://www.policymic.com/articles/collapsing-syrian-economy-will-be-downfall-of-bashar-al-assad )

For much of the past year reportage from inside Syria came via Facebook and Twitter rather than from international journalists, most of whom were perched on the border somewhere trying to peer in and divine what was happening.  They succeeded rarely.  The other main source of information came from exile groups based in the UK and America and elsewhere, relying on their own sources inside Syria to feed out an account of events.

More latterly, international journalists have been allowed in, boosting information flow and increasing commentary but, it might be said, without yet actually providing much more enlightenment as to the true nature of affairs.  Sadly, too, there have been media deaths in both local and foreign ranks, with Marie Colvin’s death under fire in Homs escalating the kneejerk international calls to direction action, and Anthony Shadid’s robbing the world of one of its best voices on the subject.

In short, as the developments have unfolded and the complexities deepened, the levels of understanding  have not kept up.  A year on, though, what does it really look like?

First, to the surprise of many less seasoned observers, Bashar al-Assad is still there and looks like he might be for a while yet – the influential analysts Joshua Landis thinks it could well be 2013 before Bashar is under real pressure to go. (http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/syrian-uprising-2011-why-asad-regime-likely-survive-2013?print )    The reasons for that are not hard to find.  Bashar holds power via a concatenation of minority interests, most of whom see little future for themselves in Syria if Bashar goes.  It is for that simple reason, behind which lie some real complexities of course, that the President still commands considerable support.  That is buttressed by his careful control over the military through his fellow Alawi officer and soldier caste, and especially of the intelligence services.  Those fervent for change read much into the very recent defection to the revolution of the Sunni Deputy Oil Minister, seeing that as the first of many.  That remains to be proven, though, and most of the analysis implicitly or explicitly locates most of the future via a sectarian prism.

Second, it becomes daily more obvious that the opposition is, in fact, a series of oppositions, none with a real sway or clear future.  That is beginning to cause real problems in Washington and elsewhere because it raises the question of whom to back and on what grounds.   (http://www.mei.edu/content/unite-syrias-opposition-first )    There might be more than a few policy mandarins in those world capitals remembering Ahmad Chalabi and what happened in Iraq during the policy-free zone phase after the fall of Saddam.  More recently, of course, events in Libya and Egypt demonstrate the extreme fluidity in opposition ranks in these sorts of uprisings, along with the absolute uncertainty of what such oppositions might do if they come to power.  Trying to identify a “legitimate” Syrian opposition team is now becoming a huge obstacle for international strategists.

This has been exacerbated by controversy over bodies such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  Based in London, this very early on became a prime source of news and ideas, but doubts soon emerged as to the authenticity of both the information and the people behind it. (http://www.chrisroubis.com/2012/01/sohr-syrian-observatory-for-human-rights-a-cheap-imitation-syrian-observatory-for-human-rights/ )    That in turn led to divisions within the broader Syrian expat community and that has prompted further questions of legitimacy in several quarters of the opposition.  That led by definition, especially before the wider media presence, to questions about really what was happening on the ground, with the Local Coordinating Committees that have been so active on Twitter being a prime source of at least basic information, especially as the number of “hot” points across the country increased.

As usual much of this coverage has divided into “superior” and “ordinary “categories, which is why the death of Shadid was so significant.   At the risk of a generalization, much of the best analysis has not appeared in the mainstream media.  The International Crisis Group has been outstanding with Peter Harling’s analyses being beacons of enlightenment, charting progressively the decaying but not finished position of the regime. (http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/01/24/collectively_failing_syrian_society )    Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment website has been similarly excellent.  There has been an edge in all this, too, with alleged media “bias” being raised on all sides amidst rising acrimony.  (http://www.facebook.com/aus4syria )     After all this is over, the role of media and social media might well be one of the more enduring research aspects, because the battle to control the imagery of the struggle is almost as significant as that on the ground.

Perhaps the most damaging factor has been the international paralysis concerning what approach to take towards this Syrian crisis.  More than in any of the other “Arab Spring” sites, that in Syria has been complicated by regional and international alliances, aspirations and anxieties.  Turkey has hosted the Syrian Free Army to help promote its regional significance.  The Iran bogey has made America especially strident towards Bashar, and exacerbated by its on-going relationship with Israel which has chosen these moments to tantalise with a strike possibility on Iran.  The Saudis and Bahrainis, no great bastions of democracy in any form, have urged Syria to democratize, clearly an opportunistic move to cement their own regional sway.  The UN Security Council veto on action by Russia and China raised a storm of outrage, but really was predictable given the regional niceties.  Now former UN boss Kofi Annan is visiting Syria, and some analysts almost see this as a last chance to get a middle ground between two polarities: Bashar relenting, or Bashar being shoved aside. (http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/B032-now-or-never-a-negotiated-transition-for-syria.pdf )

That interpretation alone in many respects reveals the threadbare international policy options with “no fly zones”, “ neutral corridors” and downright military options being fallen back upon time after time.  Something is certainly needed, but all evidence and sense says that it needs to be Syrian-based and mobilised if it is to have a chance.  It must be supported by the outside players, certainly, but they cannot impose it.  The armed intervention option is being driven really only by the lack of alternatives.  Perhaps what is required is something like a Community Reconciliation Commission run from inside the country but with international support (rather than direction) of a sensible and pragmatic nature.  Inter-community relations are now a shadow of what they were, and if the country is to return to anything like what it was on the eve of the troubles then restoring those relations will be No. 1 on the “to do” list.

If something like this does not happen then, a year on, the future is bleak, if only because there are few if any other obvious outcomes that might alleviate misery.  Because the one thing we do know from the past year is that thousands of Syrians, who a year ago had hopes of a new order and a new prosperity, are either dead or injured as the strife continues.  The pounding of Homs and, in particular, Bab Omr is now the best but not only demonstration of what might occur should some solution not be found quickly.  Friends and colleagues are enduring all this, and there is little relief in sight.  Our thoughts remain with them.

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