Syria between civil war and sanctions

February 7, 2012

Yusef Khalil looks at the prospects for the Syrian revolution as the regime escalates its bloody crackdown--and the U.S. and Europe continue to ratchet up the pressure.

THE SYRIAN regime is aggressively stepping up repression following Russia's and China's veto of a UN Security Council resolution--pushed by the U.S. and its allies--that calls for the withdrawal of the Syrian military from cities and towns.

China and Russia claim they blocked the UN resolution because it didn't encourage dialogue between the opposition and the regime. But both governments calculate that a UN resolution on sanctions would lead to a Libya-type military intervention, which would further extend the influence of the West in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, key parts of the Syrian regime around President Bashar al-Assad seem to have decided that there will be no reliable exit from the crisis through a negotiated transition or safe departure and exile--and therefore they will plunge the country into civil war. In the almost 11 months since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, some 7,000 people have been killed, according to opposition activists.

To try to crush the revolution, Assad is trying to channel it into a sectarian civil war. It's no coincidence that as the UN debated its resolution, the Syrian military launched a mortar attack on the central city of Homs, a predominately Sunni Muslim town. Reports from the city stated that more than 200 civilians died over the weekend of February 4 and 5 as a result of artillery and mortar attacks against neighborhoods.

Syrian military forces fire on protesters
Syrian military forces fire on protesters

By targeting Homs, Assad--who derives most of his support from the minority Alawite Muslim, Druze and Christian communities--hopes to portray the revolution as an armed rebellion by a minority of Islamist extremists. Thus, the Syrian government claims that Homs was attacked by terrorists with ties to the opposition.

Despite the state's violence, the last several days have seen some of the largest demonstrations against the regime yet, as Syrians commemorated the 30-year anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre--when the forces of President Hafez al-Assad (father of the current ruler) massacred tens of thousands in the city to crush the last significant challenge to the Assad family's iron grip on Syria.

THE LATEST crackdown was the backdrop to the recent UN Security Council session on Syria. Two opposing narratives are being pushed.

One side argues that the Assad regime's crackdown is legitimate, and should be viewed as an internal security issue versus armed terrorist attacks. Reports of regime attacks against unarmed civilian demonstrations are dismissed as mere propaganda, issued by the U.S., Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. This camp also claims that media outlets like Al Jazeera are fabricating stories and building mock sets of Syrian towns to provide fake news and videos of the regime's "atrocities."

In reference to the attacks against Homs, Syria's Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, asked the Security Council, "Is there a sensible person who would believe a government commits massacres in a given city on a day when the Security Council is scheduled to hold a meeting to examine the situation in that country? Would any entity put itself in such a position?"

The regime and its backers say there is an international conspiracy that is mobilizing, financing and arming an uprising against Syria aimed at destroying the last remnant of the Arab fortress against Western imperialism. The Russian and Chinese veto, they claim, is a defense against an attempt to legitimize the future military involvement of the West and NATO against Syria--similar to the way last spring's Security Council resolution on Libya was interpreted by Western leaders as an opportunity to pursue regime change.

Those favoring a UN Security Council resolution on Syria claim that the Arab League observer mission to Syria failed to provide any meaningful protection to pro-democracy protesters, and was instead manipulated by the regime. Therefore, they argue, the Arab League had no choice but to refer the matter to the Security Council, in the hope of getting a resolution passed that condemns the violent repression of the Assad regime and pressures him to step down.

In this view, the U.S., being a promoter of democracy, stood with the Arab League request. Russia and China, that argument goes, placed their alliance with the Assad government and related arms sales above any considerations of human life and vetoed the resolution. The Assad regime, having previously received assurances of the upcoming veto, then proceeded to escalate its brutal crackdown in the days leading up to the Security Council vote.

Neither of these narratives is correct. What is actually happening at the UN is a power play, with Syrian lives being used as bargaining chips by all sides.

The diplomatic jostling of both sides has little to do with either concern for the Syrian people or the sovereignty of Syria. It is really a reflection of competing international interests over how--and under whose patronage--the struggle in Syria plays out. No party is neutral.

THE IMPERIAL maneuvers around Syria can only be explained by looking at how the Arab revolutions spread and toppled pillars of the region's established power structures. Over the past year, international and regional powers scrambled to recalibrate their positions as they face the new reality.

After the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the U.S. lost two of its biggest allies in the region. Add to that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq--which left the country halfway in Iran's sphere of influence--and Washington is more determined to shape the outcome in Syria and all other countries to its benefit.

With the emergence of the Islamic organizations as the biggest organized political groups in Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S. understood that it now has to play with new partners. This meant shedding the previous hostility to these organizations, and creating new ties and relationships (or reviving old ones)--especially with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed by many Arab regime--but periodically allowed to operate at certain times as a safety valve to release some pressure on those regimes and as a tool used against any challenge from the left--has now emerged as a dominant force. It has shown its willingness to work with the military establishments, continue the same old discredited economic policies and international treaties of the previous regimes, and demobilize popular movements in exchange for a share in the pie of authority.

In this context, the Persian Gulf state of Qatar has become as a player in the Arab revolutions. It was heavily involved in the military operations in Libya. It is a major financial sponsor of both the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the parliamentary elections in Egypt and the Ennahda Party, which won elections in Tunisia.

Qatar is also home to the widely popular Al Jazeera satellite TV station, which has played a significant role in covering the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan uprisings--but not so much the movements in Yemen and Bahrain, which are too close to home for the Gulf monarchies that profess to favor democracy in other Arab countries, as long as it doesn't jeopardize their own hold on power.

Moreover, Qatar maintains very close ties with the U.S. It hosts the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which directs American military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia--including Iraq and Afghanistan. Qatar, therefore, despite its claims at neutrality, has positioned itself as a significant power broker.

Iran also has its own regional ambitions. It has always been a regional power, but its influence and power waned considerably after the revolution that overthrew the Shah. The blow was dealt by Iraq in the prolonged Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which the U.S. armed both sides in order to weaken both.

It was a long road back to recovery for Iran. But with the U.S. bogged down in its two occupations, Iran-allied parties emerging as the dominant force in post-Saddam Iraq, the victory of the Syria-and-Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah resistance against Israel in 2006, and Hezbollah's subsequent ascent to government in 2011, Iran's regional fortunes were improving even before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

After U.S. hegemony was weakened in the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Iran seemed poised for still greater regional influence. But now there is a renewed effort by the U.S. and Israel to contain (and possibly attack) Iran over allegations of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The escalating U.S. and Western rhetoric and saber-rattling are meant to prevent Iran from seizing this moment. This is why Iran will not easily give up on its primary Arab ally: the Assad regime.

AS PART of the effort to counter Iran's regional influence, the U.S. has tacitly encouraged Turkey to take the lead in pressuring Syria--its neighbor and a former province in the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Assad to step down months ago, and Turkey--a member of the NATO alliance--is hosting opposition groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of defectors from the Syrian military. So far, the FSA, which has only light weapons, isn't a significant military threat to Syria, and Turkey has apparently not given it significant arms or support. But it by allowing the FSA to operate from its side of the border, Turkey has raised the specter of military aid to the opposition.

Turkey's pressure on Syria is welcome by the U.S. government. Certainly, the U.S. isn't happy with Erdogan's refusal to allow Turkey to be used as staging area for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Washington has been frustrated by Turkey's tensions with Israel after Israeli forces stormed a Turkish humanitarian flotilla headed for Gaza in 2010. But in this case, Turkey's interests overlap with those of the U.S., as both countries seek to pull Syria out of its alliance with Iran.

Israel's role in the anti-Syrian coalition is contradictory, to say the least. As the revolution began, Israeli politicians and commentators made it clear that they preferred the stability of Baathist rule under Assad to a revolutionary transformation that would give scope to the pro-Palestinian sentiment of the majority of the Syrian people.

Russia's interests in Syria are significant. The Russian government is the main supplier of arms to the Syrian regime, which also hosts Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. A previous draft of the UN resolution contained language "expressing grave concern at the continued transfer of weapons into Syria which fuels the violence and calling on Member States to take necessary steps to prevent such flow of arms."

It appears that Russia successfully negotiated the removal of that text from the proposed resolution it vetoed. Russia is threatened by what it sees as aggressive U.S. maneuvering in the region, and it is trying to better its own position in the new Middle East. Russia is also keen on protecting the dominance of its natural gas supply to Eastern Europe, which is threatened by the possibility of alternate energy routes through U.S.-friendly regimes in the Middle East.

The Security Council resolution that Russia vetoed is actually based on Russia's own proposal--to mediate a Yemen-style resolution to the conflict whereby the president yields power to his deputy. It appears that Russia was blindsided when the Arab League took its Syria proposal to the Security Council.

So what started out as a Russian attempt to protect its interests and increase its influence by brokering a deal ended up being seen by the Russians as an attempt to deny them an ally in a region of vital strategic interest to them.

Amid the new jockeying for power and influence in the Middle East, Russia does not have many prospects beyond Syria. This explains why the Russians are hedging their bets: providing political cover and buying time for the Assad regime to crush the uprising while simultaneously floating proposals that indicate their willingness to sacrifice Assad to guarantee themselves a continued foothold in the area.

Indeed, the calculations being made on the international level--by all sides--seem to care less about what the resolution is, and more about how (and under whose patronage) the struggle in Syria plays out.

WHAT IS the relationship of the international maneuvering to the Syrian opposition?

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has been promoted as the official representative of the Syrian revolutionary movement. But despite its inclusion of broad forces from across the political spectrum, the SNC is far from being representative of the opposition and revolutionary committees inside Syria. It is heavily dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not have much support or organized presence inside Syria. In fact, most demonstrations and revolutionary activities are conducted outside of the control or direction of the SNC.

Alongside the Brotherhood, there are some leftist and secular nationalist figures in the SNC and its leadership. But the Syrian opposition's fragmentation has not been overcome by simply grouping everybody under one big umbrella.

This has led to conflicts within the council over political and procedural questions, where the Brotherhood has increasingly shown its dominance. Furthermore, SNC members' meetings with, and overtures to, the U.S. and European powers do not quell the fears of opposition activists who are opposed to heavy Western influence.

Looking at the interests of the various players--the U.S./Israel, Russia/China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood--it is clear that Syria is at the nexus of an international power struggle, the outcome of which can affect the entire region. Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current ruler, was adept at maneuvering Syria into precisely that position in order to get international consent as a state of regional significance.

Thus, the claim that what is taking place is simply a Western-hatched conspiracy against Syria misses the mark by a wide margin.

At best, this argument reflects a condescending view of the Syrian people as incapable of self-mobilization and completely ignores the social crisis faced by Syrians under an illegitimate dictatorship. At worst, it shows a hollow understanding of anti-imperialism--one that opposes any struggle for self-emancipation against an absolute ruler who says something half-critical of the U.S., even while the regime carves out a mutually beneficial relationship with imperialism.

The real conspiracy at work isn't aimed at the Assad regime, but is directed against the Syrian people and their aspirations for self-determination. Every power is hell-bent to deny them this and believes there is too much at stake in the outcome of the revolution to leave it up to the Syrian people.

If anything, the weeks of debate and activity leading up to the vote on the Security Council resolution have exposed the deep divisions and competing motives behind the positions of the so-called international community.

Syria's bloodiest days are very likely still ahead of us as the regime feels emboldened in the short term, and the opposition, in self-defense, increasingly turns to arms and the FSA.

The lesson here--as the Syrians already knew when they began their struggle 11 months ago--is that there is no external savior. The success of the Syrian revolution will depend on the continued self-activity of the Syrian masses to encourage mass defections from the regular army--and to deal a blow against the regime by organizing working-class action in the factories and state institutions.

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