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Syria, once a land of pluralistic coexistence in the Arab world, is now irreparably fractured between competing factions. There isn’t a single group that can claim to speak for even a modest majority of Syrians. Syria itself has become a catchment for foreign jihadists whose ambition goes far beyond toppling the secular dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
In Damascus alone I met fighters from more than half a dozen countries, some from places as far as Afghanistan, dreaming of transforming Syria into a theocratic state. Secular opponents of Assad, always a minority, have from the beginning found themselves in the impossible position of having to counteract the foreign fighters in Syria while also preserving themselves from the state’s overwhelming power. Unable to win at home and neglected by the world, their own ideological complexion gradually altered, and many embraced the foreign jihadists in their midst. What could have turned into an Egyptian-style mass uprising dissolved instead into a series of local insurgencies in which religious minorities, particularly Christians, became targets of fighters sympathetic to or affiliated with Al-Qaida. Ancient communities were cleansed from their homes in the province of Homs. Churches were bombed. Dissenters, in a phenomenon alien to Syria, were beheaded. And women, who had traditionally enjoyed greater freedoms in Syria than in most other parts of the Arab world, were forced into the veil.
For all the prophesies of imminent overthrow, Assad and his Baathist machine have remained the only stable features in Syria. Despite periodic bombings that claim dozens of lives, daily life in Damascus, Assad’s bastion, largely continues as before: schools and offices remain open, government employees receive their salaries, and new episodes of popular soaps continue to be produced and aired on television. Unsettled by the extremist turn of the opposition, Syria’s minorities and, increasingly, its prosperous middle classes are once again viewing Assad as the guarantor of their security and Syria’s secularism. Most important of all, more than 250,000 soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army still pledge loyalty to Assad, fighting, dying and securing territory for him throughout Syria.
Acutely aware of the possibility of Western intervention, Assad, who is driven by instincts of self-preservation, has no reason to cross the red line delineated by President Obama and introduce chemical weapons into a war that he is, if not exactly winning, not in much danger of losing, either. Therefore, the claim that he used small quantities of Sarin gas is hard to believe without conclusive proof — and Washington has provided nothing of the kind.
The failure to mount concerted pressure on Assad during the early months of the rebellion may have radicalised some Syrians. But, contrary to what Western proponents of military intervention appear to believe, deposing Assad from power now will not miraculously bring peace. The collapse of the state will instead carry the civil war to an even bloodier phase as the groups that are arrayed against Assad vie for power in post-Baathist Syria. Yet some advocates of intervention, excited by the prospect of humiliating Iran by engineering the ouster of its strongest Arab ally, are willing to bear this price. There’s a strange echo in these arguments for direct involvement in Syria of the kind of thinking that led America in the 1980s to intervene in Afghanistan. The urge then to chasten the Soviet Union trumped any concerns about arming an unknown group of fighters who, abetted by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, eventually emerged as the Taliban.
It is worth remembering that, soon after expelling the Soviets, many veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad moved to Kashmir to defeat India; the region’s sole functioning democracy was, in the eyes of the mujahideen, an infidel power in occupation of a Muslim land. Once Assad falls, where will the foreign fighters in Syria go?
Once the bloodshed ends in Syria, the perennial animosities that have for so long defined the region will resurface. For what began two years ago as a limited but genuine people’s uprising against a tyrannical regime was expropriated, early on, by regional powers who saw the turmoil provoked by the Arab Spring as an opportunity to reshape the Middle East’s political landscape to their advantage. Saudi Arabia, the preeminent Sunni power in the region, facilitated the transfer of arms and money to the rebels. Qatar, having gained outsize influence in the region through shrewd deployment of its Al Jazeera news network, amplified their struggles. Turkey, whose Islamist prime minister had for some years been leaning on Damascus to decriminalise the Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, vigorously internationalised the conflict.
This regional dynamic is crucial because, fixated with weakening Iran at any cost, the West appears to be overlooking the fact that the Middle East which these apparently pro-Western powers are labouring to engender will be far more hostile to the West than Assad’s Syria ever was.
Pouring arms into Syria will take the heat off Obama at home, where his critics have been piling on the pressure; but in Syria, it will only exacerbate the conflict. Despite assurances from leaders of seemingly secular opposition bodies, once sophisticated American weapons enter the chaotic theatre of conflict, monitoring their movement or keeping them from falling into the hands of implacably anti-Western extremists will be impossible. Only intense diplomacy led by America and aided by Russia, Assad’s most powerful international benefactor, can bring the violence to a swift end. Washington will have to start by acknowledging that there is a substantial pro-Assad constituency in Syria — and, fearful of its place in a post-Assad future, it won’t settle for an arrangement in which Assad is denied a role. A settlement that denies outright victory to any one party, and forces all sides to arrive at a power-sharing agreement under international supervision, is the least risky option available to the West. A blueprint for this already exists in the so-called Geneva Communiqué of last year. Since then, all parties have tried to undermine it because it refuses to privilege any one side. But discord at the negotiating table is preferable to bloodbaths in towns and cities across Syria. This is the plan the West must back. The alternative is unthinkable: another Afghanistan.
Kapil Komireddi is an Indian journalist, writing from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.