Syria lurches to civil war as UN scurries to find pressure points
The Arab league today gave a three-day extension to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to stop killing his own people or face expulsion from it, despite being a founding member. This is big. The Arab League, notorious in the Arab world for decades of mealy-mouthed equivocation, is suddenly roaring led by Qatar, a sliver of gas-rich sand with less than 300,000 citizens.
Syria, where civilization is traced back to 10,000 years and was a regional power for centuries under Ottoman rule, is standing cap in hand before its Arab peers to avoid being exiled and placed under severe sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. These developments are surprising but welcome, although they may not be able to halt the lurch to civil war between Bashar and his opponents.
France, Britain and Germany asked the UN General Assembly today to strongly condemn human rights abuses in Syria. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Qatar are co-sponsoring the call. If the General Assembly accepts the resolution next Tuesday, the further step would be a more stringent version of Security Council sanctions than those vetoed by Russia and China in early October.
Suddenly, the pressure on al-Assad is being raised by several notches. The Syrian opposition, quietly backed by some Gulf Arab states, has called on Turkey to take military action inside Syria. They are encouraged because Ankara, a long-time friend of Bashar and his father Hafez al-Assad, seems especially irked by the violent government repression. The UN estimates 3,500 dead and some sources place that toll at up to 5,000 including those killed during incarceration or succumbed to injuries sustained during demonstrations. Ankara has already recalled its ambassador but unilateral military action is unlikely. However, it is accepting refugees and treating them exceptionally well.
While the accumulation of pressure and outrage is overdue, the underlying politics is murky. The Arab states co-sponsoring the General Assembly resolution are tightly run kingdoms that are no paragons of freedom or democracy. In fact, in Saudi Arabia and Qatar the monarchy is nearly absolute to the point where the king’s assets and those of the state are not clearly demarcated on the argument that the king is the state, thus, everything belongs to him in the final analysis.
There is also a potentially perilous religious connotation. The al-Assad’s belong to a very small minority Shia sect called Alawites that exists mainly in Syria. It rules over Sunnis and Christians. After the fall of Iraq into Shia hands, the Saudi’s would like to see Syria fall into Sunni hands. That would also weaken the Shiite Hezbollah, which has already fought a war against Israel and operates as a state within a state in Lebanon.
So far, the protest movements in Syria are not religion-based or Islamist. But that could happen in the next steps. The precedents are already there. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions may have delivered those countries into Sunni Islam’s hands despite assurances by the Islamic participants that they prefer democracy to theocracy. In Tunisia a leading winner in the nascent democratic process has already called for an Islamic Republic ruled by Sharia law to replace civil law. These Arab Sunnis do not belong to the conservative Saudi-based Salafi and Wahhabi sects. But all believe in the Sharia body of Muslim law, which adamantly opposes separation between mosque and state.
Turkey seems to have a liberal democracy-leaning Islamist government which is already moving away from the US and Europe to establish political and economic influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some see Turkey as an example of Islamic harmony with democracy, others see Islam creeping over democracy. The regime is under pressure from restive Kurds who inhabit Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Recently, the Turks have used aerial bombing to hit at Kurds attacking form safe havens in Iraq.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan wants that al-Assad should put an end to the rebellion or step down if his only solution is to kill more civilians to stay in power. His position is couched in humanitarian terms but his fears stem from the trouble-making potential of Kurds. Turkey shares a 900 km frontier with Syria and it does not want Kurds with terrorist intentions infiltrating into Turkey in addition to those that come in from Iraq. An unstable Syria could lead to a greater Kurdish threat to Turkey’s internal security. He prefers to see Bashar out than risk a harsher dictatorship constantly under pressure from armed rebellions or civil war within.
Perhaps, the US and Europe are the only ones that really wish freedom and democracy upon Syria’s long suffering people. But they have little direct influence. The silver lining is that Russia seems to be putting more pressure on Bashar to stop the killings and China has expressed deep concern. These signals might mean that neither will veto a future Security Council resolution against Bashar. That would be of real help to the Syrian people.