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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Myth of the 'soft landing' for Syria prevents real solutions

In Syria, the chances of a peaceful transfer of power is a shameful fantasy

With fighting raging in the heart of the Syrian capital, it is timely to look back to the decades that tourists (and journalists in search of a charmingly exotic story) would flock to the Nafurah cafe in the old city of Damascus. There, they would listen to the hakawati, the traditional storyteller who would dish up epic tales of bygone Arab greatness. Wildly fantastic and vividly performed, the stories would fire the listeners' enthusiasm even as the audience knew the tales were embroidered.

Syria has now become a textbook case of what happens when people start believing too much in their own fantasies. For well over a decade, the country's regime and the West have been operating on two mutually exclusive and equally unrealistic narratives that make it all the harder for the international community to act effectively to end this violence.

Even amid the evidence that the regime is perpetrating serial massacres without any regard for international opinion, western leaders and diplomats have at times hearkened back to a misguided narrative about President Bashar Al Assad because of what must be either a deep-seated reluctance to interfere or stubborn reliance on a failed policy.

The narrative is that of a "soft landing", the one-time belief in the gradual relaxation and democratisation that the young and London-educated Mr Al Assad was supposed to have had in mind for Syria. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that Mr Al Assad "must go", or UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan again speaks of a "transition", there are shadows of the soft landing scenario in the expectation that somehow the regime can be persuaded to compromise.

The notion of the soft landing long survived the brutal Syrian truth - even before the past 17 months of violence - through cycles of crackdowns on government opponents, assassinations in Lebanon, aid to Iraqi insurgents and so on. The young Mr Al Assad, who took over in 2000, was often excused as well-meaning but still not powerful enough to impose himself on the vested interests in his country, mainly his Alawite clan and family. It was one of the beliefs that lay at the root of the initial Obama administration policy of engagement.

The longevity of the idea has been remarkable, particularly since Syrian officials throughout the 2000s unabashedly proposed a different one of their own; of some modern-looking reforms and a slight opening up of the economy, but only in order for the regime to cling to power - this, officials used to term the "China option".

That idea was absurd; Syria is not China, and one of the few points in common might have been that large parts of the population for quite a long time went along for the sake of stability, intimidated by domestic and regional upheavals.

After the recent violence, it has become clear to Syrians that the regime can no longer even provide this fake version of stability, which was always enforced with a high level of brutality and ruthlessness, and was itself unsustainable. Neither has Syria's economy made a great leap forward, nor has the regime significantly raised the living standards of millions of its citizens.

With both the soft landing and the China scenarios exposed as the wishful delusions that they always were, the question is what the right prism might be through which to see the Syrian situation. Since the outbreak of the civil unrest, many new narratives have sprung up: the opposition is dominated/infiltrated/co-opted by Al Qaeda and other fundamentalists; Saudi Arabia and its allies are stoking the unrest; the regime is being propped up by Iran; the only alternative to the Assads is chaos and the slaughter of minorities, etc.

There may be grains of truth in some or all of the above statements but they do not represent a fundamental narrative of what has been, and is now, happening in Syria. That is, simply put, that a sectarian minority of the population has been ruling the country for almost half a century, empowered by its strong, post-colonial position in the armed forces. It has co-opted some in the majority but that support is now crumbling with each new massacre. It has also co-opted other minorities by playing on, often justifiable, fears of marginalisation. The ruthless way it has ruled and the nature of the traditional opposition, often Sunni sectarian and Muslim fundamentalist, make compromise unlikely.

Oversimplified and schematic though this narrative may be, it offers the advantage of clarity and pointing a way forward. Rather than count on the regime and its inner circle to give up, international efforts should be aimed at ensuring that Syria's revolution does not become the zero-sum game that politics and power in the region so often end up as.

Minorities, notably Alawites and Christians, should be reassured that their safety and their interests will be safeguarded in a post-Assad Syria. This can be done both by direct international commitments and by wresting guarantees from the opposition, now that it still badly needs international support.

Even while Russia blocks co-ordinated international action, the West should stop equivocating and put forward a clear narrative that tells the regime that its time is up. An amicable or at least peaceful transfer of power is a shameful fantasy perpetuated by people in Syria and outside it who have no interest in change or who feel powerless to enable it.

 

Ferry Biedermann covered Syria between 1999 and 2010, as a correspondent for The Financial Times, among other newspapers. He now writes for The National from Europe

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