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Tinder Well Stacked for Syrian Sectarian Bonfire

End Game for Bashar al Assad?

by PETER LEE

It is looking more and more like game over for Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Ironically, this is in spite of the fact that Bashar has apparently demonstrated that an authoritarian regime, left to its own devices, can often do a good job of crushing determined domestic dissent, especially if the insurgents lack a safe haven, either inside or outside the country.

That may be about to change.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey lead the array of regional powers that see a clear line to advantage and increased influence once Bashar’s Ba’athist regime is out of the picture. Even though—because—the popular movement in Syria is against the ropes, we can expect an escalation of regional involvement in Syria designed to topple Bashar al Assad.

Turkey has announced it will allow the Syrian political opposition to open an office in Turkey, paving the way for eventual recognition.

However, military reality may outrun the political ambitions of the Syrian dissidents.

I have written before about the new doctrine of “preventive diplomacy” promoted at the Security Council by Ban Ki-moon with an enthusiastic assist from the United States.

It opens the door for abrogating sovereignty of an undesirable state even if/especially when an autocrat is getting the best of a democratic movement.

It’s tailor-made for Syria, of course.

In a way, it represents the failure of the strategy of the broad-based democratic movement, and close to the official uncorking of the sectarian genie.

The Syrian democratic movement staked its moral legitimacy on its unifying and non-violent character: Sunnis and Alawites, country and city, MBs and secularists, lions and lambs, etc. It drew obvious inspiration from the Egyptian revolution.

Unfortunately, I believe the Syrian democratic movement also suffered from a fatal mendacity.

To sustain its moral legitimacy, it called for dialogue.

But when the Syrian government offered dialogue, its offer was rejected: “not sincere”, “can’t be considered until political detainees released” etc.  And every week it seems there was a new outrage, a new martyr, a new reason why demands on the government had to escalate before people could leave the streets and begin dialogue.

No doubt participation in government-orchestrated “dialogue” would have delayed the fulfillment of Syrian aspirations.  It might have turned out to be a frustrating pantomime, along the lines of the “negotiations” Israel occasionally inflicts on the Palestinians when the tactical disadvantages and political costs of ignoring them become excessive.

We didn’t get the chance to find out.

The democratic movement was banking on what I call the “ecstatic democratic dogpile” theory: the demonstrations would become bigger and bigger, bureaucrats and officers would defect from the regime, and the democratic movement could dictate terms instead of negotiating with the government.

That’s what the US, Saudi Arabia, and other powers hostile to Bashar al Assad also expected.

As Helena Cobban has pointed out the United States could have endorsed “dialogue” in Syria, as we did when apartheid South Africa, a rather important client, was facing its democratic transition.

The response to the jaw-dropping spectacle of the United States saying, “Y’all just go home now.  Get off the streets before more blood is spilled.  C’mon, start dialogin’” would have been amusing to observe.

But it didn’t happen.  And the Syrian regime didn’t collapse.

Time for Plan B.

So now some Syrian dissidents are dropping Egypt (which has encountered its own difficulties) in favor of Libya as a revolutionary model: armed struggle, supported as needed by explicit foreign military intervention.

It’s based on the assumption that the Syrian army, largely Sunni conscripts, already worn out by six months of confrontation with democracy protesters, will find its enthusiasm for defending the Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad flagging even more rapidly when it starts taking serious casualties.

This is a strategy that I believe has been  nascent within Syria since the beginning of the uprising for some of Bashar al Assad’s many enemies.  There have been credible reports of armed gangs ambushing military forces since early in the uprising, possibly carried out by supporters of exiled strongman and Saudi client (and billionaire!) Abdul Halim Khaddam.

The Western media, wedded to the non-violent democracy movement storyline, did not take the incidents seriously at first; then explained them as “revenge attacks” provoked by the crackdown, as opposed to planned efforts to escalate the conflict and increase polarization between the majority Sunni and other confessions.

As the repression has dragged on and quick victory eluded the democracy movement, polarization also became an inevitable by-product of the peaceful movement itself, despite the sincere efforts of many pro-democracy leaders.  The most loyal security forces are Alawite while most of the protesters are Sunni, a fact that has become abundantly clear as the crackdown ground on over the months.

Now, if the West and GCC decide that the peaceful democratic movement can’t close the regime-change deal itself, then open support of the Syrian revolution is in the cards and the legitimacy of the Bashar al Assad regime will be officially revoked for the crime of defending its rule too brutally and successfully.

That opens the door to the whole R2P/no fly/covert military assistance megillah that we saw in Libya, whose primary purpose is to decapitate the command structure of senior regime loyalists and send the message to wavering  military units that their best hope is to abandon the regime.

In Syria’s case, the violence won’t be just between loyal senior commanders and rebellious junior officers and rank and file. Syria’s military, below the Alawite command, is overwhelmingly Sunni.  So the violence is going to be Alawite on Sunni and vice versa.

Since the majority of Syria’s civilian population is also Sunni and dissatisfied with the regime, it is to the advantage of the regime’s more hardened opponents to escalate the violence and accelerate the polarization of Syria into Sunni and non-Sunni camps.

That’s a danger that the Bashar al Assad regime has incessantly if self-servingly invoked, even as it stoked the sectarian flames by sending its Alawite loyalists to shoot and stomp their way through dozens of Sunni cities and towns.

A military struggle is probably going to look a lot more like a Sunni rebellion and less like a democratic revolution that cuts across religious and economic lines.

Thanks to optimistic overreach by democracy activists, the  Bashar al Assad government’s iron-fisted crackdown, provocations by anti-regime militants, and post-Libya opportunism by the West, the GCC, and Turkey, the fuel for the sectarian bonfire has been stacked.

All that’s needed is for somebody to toss a match, maybe by encouraging/assisting Sunni dissidents to abandon non-violence and proactively (or, as the Security Council would have it, “preventively”) defend themselves.

I expect that Saudi Arabia might be happy to oblige.

That’s not especially good news for Alawites, Christians, or Syria’s pro-democracy dissidents.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.