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A Gloomy Syrian Scenario

Jagdish N Singh is a senior Indian journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
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  • February 24, 2012

    Emboldened by the veto Russia and China exercised the other day on the Arab League-sponsored and Western-backed UN Security Council resolution, which sought the transfer of power by President Bashar al-Assad to his deputy aimed at bringing the anti-government forces to the negotiating table for ending the unrest in the West Asian nation, and the support they, together with Iran, extended subsequently to Syria in the General Assembly on the issue, the Bashar regime has intensified its crackdown against the rebels and their supporters. Apparently, the regime seems to be winning with the help of continued weapons supply from Russia and Iran as well as the support provided by the Iranian Islamic revolutionary Guards encampments based throughout Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon. But one doubts if the current situation will last long.

    Given the pattern of Russo-Chinese behaviour in recent crises, including in former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, one is not sure if they would not ultimately desert, under one or the other pretext, Syria as well in pursuit of their far more well-defined policy of constructive engagement with the Western powers in general and the United States in particular. As for Iran, it has itself been facing serious financial constraints on account of the US-led sanctions and it may find it difficult to support Syria beyond a point.

    Besides, more importantly, there are manipulations going on within the United Nations as well as outside to force the Bashar regime out. Reports are that external forces are helping the rebels with funds and armaments. Iraqi Sunnis and Libyan fighters are crossing over to join the rebels in their fight against the current regime. Turkey today is not averse to resorting to some kind of military intervention. Ankara has already openly recognised the legitimacy of the Syrian National Council branding it as a peaceful opposition platform. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been reported as saying that he hoped an intervention would not be required but “if there was a humanitarian tragedy, a disaster, of course the international community and the UN cannot be silent.” He added that if the Arab initiative failed and the killings continued, Ankara would not tolerate it.

    The Turkish position can be very much appreciated in the context of the larger power struggle between the Shiite Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance and the newly emerging post-Mubarak Sunni regional bloc that Ankara seems to be aspiring to lead. Also, Ankara would like the replacement of the Bashar regime in order to neutralise Syria’s well-documented ongoing support for Kurdish terrorist organisations operating in Turkey. Ankara might be thinking that it must intervene, for if the present situation continues, the Bashar regime would continue without fully collapsing and this would be made use of by the Syrian Kurds to assert some kind of autonomy which in turn would also benefit the Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Needless to mention, Turkey can play a very useful role in dislodging the Assad regime. It has the second largest land force in the North Atlantic treaty Organization and shares a land border with Syria.

    One, however, wonders if such a possible post-Bashar scenario would be better from the viewpoint of peace and freedom in Syria. Ground realities suggest it could result in a tyranny of the majority given that Sunnis account for 60 to 70 per cent of Syria’s population. Islamist forces in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular are very popular amongst them. If elections are held today, as the trends in neighbouring Egypt show, some group or combination of groups supported by such radical forces might come to power. The possible emergent state is likely to be guided by the Sunni theologian Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) who preached rigid adherence to the Qur'an and sunna (practices), branding all other schools of Islamic jurisprudence as influenced by Greek logic or Sufi mysticism.

    A regime guided by the Brotherhood in Syria might be far worse than the current one for the country’s minorities such as the Kurds (10-15 per cent of population), Christians (eight per cent), Druze (three per cent) and Armenians. It is well documented that the Kurds have already suffered since the Arab nationalist Ba’ath party came to power in Syria in 1963. Some half a million of them are called “maktoum” (people of no country). They lack citizenship and have limited access to education and health provisions. The rest are called “ajanib” (foreigners), who have ID cards but limited rights. The Ba’ath regime has also systematically depopulated many Kurdish areas creating an Arab population belt in and around them. It has banned the Kurdish language and festivals too. Given what has happened to their brethren in other Sunni Muslim states in the region, the plight of the Kurds in a post-Bashar Syria is likely to only worsen. Once out of power, the heterodox Alawites who account for about 12 per cent of the population may also be persecuted. Sunni theologian Taymiyya had long ago branded the Alawites as more dangerous than the Christians and preached jihad to eliminate them. What might follow an Islamist rule could well be imagined.

    In view of the afore-mentioned logical implications of the ideology and approach of the Islamist forces in a possible post-Bashar scenario, the leading democracies in general and the United States in particular need to anticipate the dangers ahead in Syria and evolve a policy that does not create, intentionally or unintentionally, a monster bigger than Bashar al Assad whose long dictatorial regime they all want to dismantle. But will they?