ISTANBUL - Hafez al-Assad massacred the city of Hama in 1982. Yet this atrocity did not make Assad a ‘butcher’ in the eyes of many Syrians. In fact, after the massacre, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of Damascus to cheer the Syrian leader for his tough response to what was perceived as an Islamist challenge to public order.
Bashar al-Assad is now on the same path as his father, but with one important exception: while Bashar has no qualms about stepping into his father’s combat boots, he is still attempting to walk a reformist line.
With the defeat of rebel forces in Homs last week, crowds came out to celebrate Bashar’s victory and show support for the regime. And though these demonstrations may look like a throwback to his father’s era, the iron fist no longer guarantees regime survival.
Still, Bashar has two important dynamics working in his favor: first, even if the opposition refuses to admit it, reforms have shored up the basic pillars of his regime. Second, infighting amongst opposition leaders has cast doubts on their ability to present a unified front against Assad.
Syrian opposition leaders established the Syrian National Council last January in Istanbul. The SNC’s ostensible goal was to implement a strategy similar to the one that eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But now the SNC is in crisis, faced with internal divisions and inching ever closer to irrelevance. On February 26th, a group of 20 members broke-off from the SNC, citing dissatisfaction with the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. This group has since formed its own opposition movement, the Syrian Patriotic Group. Then on March 13th, three key players - Kamal al-Labwani, Haitham al-Maleh, and Catherine al-Talli – announced their opposition to the SNC, criticizing it for not doing enough to support the Free Syrian Army. Al-Labwani came out with scathing criticisms of the SNC, saying that, "Some are in it for personal gain and the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to monopolize aid and weapons to gain popular influence on the ground. We don’t want to replace the current dictator with a new one.”
By March 17th, five different groups had broken from the SNC and organized under a new umbrella, advocating for a humanitarian corridor for refugees and weapons for the Free Syrian Army. Kurdish parties are similarly wary of the SNC, viewing it as a stooge of the Turkish government. Another important organization, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, views the SNC as little more than a body of armchair oppositionists.
Falling in a trap
Syrian divisions have landed the Friends of Syria - a group of foreign nations that support regime change in Syria - in a difficult position. This coalition remains committed to upholding the Syrian National Council’s legitimacy, even as the organization deteriorates into a shell of its former self. The insistence on regime change in Syria has effectively paralyzed the international coalition and caused Russian and Chinese overtures to fall on deaf ears. Even UN and Arab League initiatives have foundered in this environment.
Widespread claims equating the Assad regime with the rule of the Alawite minority have further worsened the situation and triggered some ugly ‘Sunni’ reflexes. These interpretations fail to capture the nuances underlying the uprising.
After all, Sunni forces were used in the Hama crackdown and Assad’s notorious Shabiba militia includes Sunni members as well as Alawites. However, there are also many Alawites who do not support the Assad regime, but fear for their security in a post-Assad Syria.
Many of the prevailing views on Syria fail to grasp the political dynamic of violence in the country. It is often forgotten that the jihadist “Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant” instigated its armed uprising on January 23, 2011, before peaceful protests had gained momentum. This sudden outbreak of violence pulled many would-be reformists back into the Assad camp.
Unfortunately, stopping the bloodshed does not seem to be the priority for the parties involved in this conflict. Arab League General Secretary Nabil Al-Arabi puts it bluntly: “The Syrian opposition believes that the way out of this crisis is only possible through the ‘Libyan scenario,’ and negotiation attempts with the president Bashar Assad will lead to nothing.”
But because of the Chinese and Russian veto, the Libyan scenario will not work in Syria. With this option off the table, the Friends of Syria are looking to topple Assad by stoking a civil war.
Turkey has landed center-stage in these efforts, with its slogan of “regional solutions to regional problems.” It should come as no surprise that this policy has led to claims that Turkey has taken the role of unofficial NATO enforcer in the region. Turkish officials were also angered when Guardian writer Jonathan Steele compared Turkey’s situation to Honduras, which opened its border to Contras fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
In the end, a quick unraveling of the Assad regime is looking more distant by the day. In February, defecting General Mustafa al-Sheikh claimed that the Syrian army had dwindled to 30-40% of its former capacity and was bound to collapse by March. That isn’t going to happen. Now the big question is whether the Friends of Syria meeting - due to be held on April 2nd in Istanbul - will lead to constructive dialogue, or simply a renewed effort to arm the opposition and escalate the civil war.
Read the original article in Turkish.
Photo - Freedom House