x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lack of leadership on both sides feeds chaos in Syria

The Syrian regime is an ossified shell governed by a corrupt clique, and administered by apparatchiks who are often ideologues or fearful functionaries rather than public servants. The opposition is dispersed and dysfunctional.

Syria continues its long, slow descent into hell, with violence and tragedy showing no signs of letting up. By now, one year into this horror, it has become clear that neither side can win an easy victory, affirming the adage that there can be "no victor and no vanquished".

In countries such as Syria, plagued by deep divisions, several scenarios may play out. Scenario No 1: there can be repressive rule by one group over the others (Syria, like its neighbour Iraq, has tried that - and some believe Iraq may be heading there again). Scenario No 2: there can be prolonged civil war (Lebanon lived through that). Scenario No 3: there can be an uneasy truce leading to a somewhat stable modus vivendi among the groups (that's where Lebanon is now). Scenario No 4: there can be a full-fledged democracy, with full national integration and citizenship rights guaranteed for all.

At the present time, Syria is stuck somewhere between scenarios No 1 and No 2.

For its part, the regime has behaved in an abominable manner. When faced initially with a largely non-violent protest movement, it used brutal repression. This only spurred the opposition, which in response resorted to weapons, taking on the characteristics of a violent insurgency. This played into the regime's hands by justifying, at least in their minds, the use of even more brutal force.

Recognising that some change was required, the regime has proposed a series of faux reform initiatives. Because they were introduced by diktat and transparently designed to protect the regime's authority, these efforts have been rejected by the opposition as either too little too late, or just plain fraudulent.

The regime is more like a military junta than a government. And, for its part, the ruling Baath party is an ossified shell governed by a corrupt clique, and administered by apparatchiks who are often ideologues or fearful functionaries rather than public servants.

The opposition, such as it is, is dispersed and dysfunctional. There is a coalition of committed exiles who have coalesced in the Syrian National Council. Inside Syria, there are opposition figures and groups that have been operating for decades facing down repression, but still convening on occasion to voice their views. They have been joined by a loose committee of activists, the National Coordination Body, operating in many cities. It is this group that has been responsible for organising the street protests and sending information out of the country.

More recently, the opposition has been joined by groups of officers and soldiers who have turned against the regime, and bands of armed insurgents, some home-grown and others coming into the country from outside. It is these groups that have fuelled what has become the armed insurgency.

What has become painfully clear is that while the regime has lost whatever little legitimacy it may have had with a wide swatch of the population, it still retains support from some significant groups. And the opposition is not yet ready, representative of, or accepted by, all elements of Syrian society. And so this mess is increasingly out of control with no relief in sight.

More ominously, the conflict, which at one point was a struggle within Syria between competing factions with competing visions, has become a regional and international conflict with East/West, Arab/Iranian and sectarian dimensions overlapping. Just as the opposition has drawn support from members of the Arab League, Turkey and the West, the regime has been emboldened by support from Russia, China and Iran.

The most frustrating aspect of the affair is that all involved, and those who are itching to get involved, have little new to add to the equation.

Those who suggest providing more arms to the opposition have failed to answer the fundamental questions: arms to whom, and towards what end? The US assistant secretary of state, Jeffrey Feltman, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee last week called this "pouring fuel onto a conflagration", warning of predictable and deadly results.

Allies and suppliers of the regime must also be called to account. Syria has crossed the Rubicon and no amount of repression will restore the old order. More support for the regime only contributes to the suffering of the country and its people.

As the situation continues to spiral out of control, adult supervision is desperately needed. And this is a role that the US, with the Arab League and Turkey, as well as Russia and China, can attempt to play.

With scenario No 4 nowhere in sight, an uneasy truce leading to negotiations that will produce a new governing arrangement may be the best that can be hoped. It may also be the only available alternative to a long and deadly civil war, with destabilising regional consequences.

How to get there?

Both sides will need to be pushed hard. A ceasefire and commitment to negotiations leading to the formation of a new transitional government are essential. At this point, neither the regime nor elements of the opposition will easily accept such an approach. Emboldened by external support, harbouring deep grievances and fears, and believing that victory can still be theirs, they appear eager to fight on. This is where diplomatic intervention is in order.

A good place to start would be as Arab leaders meet their Russian counterparts this week. Their agreement, whatever it costs, to push both sides to give up their unachievable ambitions, would be a first step towards unwinding this conflict.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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