Syria needs mediation, not a push into all-out civil war

Jonathan Steele writes: Syria is on the verge of civil war and the Arab League foolishly appears to have decided to egg it on. The spectre is ugly, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the hawks of the Gulf, are joined by the normally restrained King Abdullah of Jordan in taking sides with opponents of Syria’s Assad regime.

Where common sense dictates that Arab governments should seek to mediate between the regime and its opponents, they have chosen instead to humiliate Syria’s rulers by suspending them from the Arab League.

It is no accident that the minority of Arab League members who declined to go along with that decision includes Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. They are the three Arab countries that have experienced massive sectarian violence and the horrors of civil war themselves. Lebanon and Iraq, in particular, have a direct interest in preventing all-out bloodshed in Syria. They rightly fear the huge influx of refugees that would pour across their borders if their neighbour collapses into civil war.

That war has already begun. The image of a regime shooting down unarmed protesters, which was true in March and April this year, has become out of date. The so-called Free Syrian Army no longer hides the fact that it is fighting and killing government forces and police, and operating from safe havens outside Syria’s borders. If it gathers strength, the incipient civil war would take on an even more overt sectarian turn with the danger of pogroms against rival communities.

Moderate Sunnis in Syria are worried by the increasing militancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who have taken the upper hand in opposition ranks. The large pro-regime demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo over the past week cannot simply be written off as crowds who were intimidated or threatened with loss of jobs if they did not turn out.

Meanwhile, Syria’s large Christian minority cowers in alarm, fearing to share the fate of Iraqi Christians who were forced to flee when sectarian killing heightened the significance of every citizen’s religious identity and began to overwhelm non-Muslims too. In northern Syria the Kurds are also nervous about the future. In spite of the regime’s long-standing refusal to accept their national rights, most fear the Muslim Brotherhood more.

The Assad regime has made mistake after mistake. Stunned by the first protests this spring, it turned too quickly to force. It blocked international media access and censored its own press and TV, thereby leaving the field free for rumour, exaggeration and the distortions of random footage uploaded on to YouTube. Its offers of dialogue with the opposition were hesitant and seemed insincere. The attacks on Arab embassies in Damascus in recent days were stupid.

As a result, the situation has become increasingly polarised. The regime denounces the externally based opposition, the Syrian National Council which came into existence last month, as a puppet of foreign governments. For its part the council refuses to talk to the regime, insisting that Assad must go. It has started to call for a no-fly zone and foreign intervention on the Libyan model, both of which are a further incitement to civil war. The internal opposition has not gone so far but may be pushed in that direction if the situation continues to sharpen.

The need now is for international mediation before it is too late, with an agenda for a democratic transition that would include guarantees of status and protection for all minorities, including the Alawites from whom the ruling elite comes. The risk of a vengeful takeover by the Sunni majority is too great.

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3 thoughts on “Syria needs mediation, not a push into all-out civil war

  1. kagiso

    To get a grip of how bad things have got at the Guardian, try reading the full article with the following word exchanges:

    Sunni – Black
    Allawite – Afrikaaner
    Arab League – British Commonwealth
    Assad – Botha
    so called Free Syrian Army – so called Umkhontho wa Sizwe

    The Guardian, mainstream apologists for mass murdering, ethnic cleansing, child shooting fascists.

  2. john


  3. qunfuz

    I must say I agree with Kagiso here. Steele’s piece sounds reasonable… if you haven’t been following events in Syria. The regime’s offers of dialogue did not ‘seem’ insincere. They were outright lies. At the start of this the protestors were calling for an end to brutality, not the end to the regime. Then the regime engaged in mass murder. It is impossible to engage in dialogue with a regime which is murdering you, torturing you, kidnapping even women and children. After 8 months it is clear to all except a few ex-stalinists like Steele that the regime does not want dialogue and is not capable of dialogue. The protestors went out of their way to emphasise national unity. The Syrian National Council went out of its way to appoint a vehement secularist at its head. The regime responded by arming Allawi villagers and sending them into Sunni areas to burn and kill. Here they performed the role performed by America in Iraq when it sent Shia and Kurdish militias into restive Sunni areas. It is true that perhaps majorities of Christians and Alawis support the regime out of fear and because they have swallowed the regime’s sectarian propaganda and misrepresentaion of the revolution. ‘progressive’ writers should be urging these majorities to think straight, not reinforcing their fears and prejudices. it would have been nice, too, if Steele and others could remind the readers of such prominent Alawis as Aref Dalila, Samar Yazbeck, Rasha Omran, Fadwa Sulaiman (on hunger strike) who are in the opposition, as well as most of the Ismaili community, the Druze of the Golan Heights, and the Assyrian church.

    As for the large pro-regime crowds. Yes, if anyone imagines that 100% of the Syrian people oppose the regime, they need to be warned that the reality is more complex. There are tens of thousands who have committed crimes – of torture or of financial corruption – under the protection of the regime. They and their families make up a lot of people. There are sectarian Islamophobes and others. But the idea that these crowds show real widespread support is also rubbish. People have been shot dead for refusing to join these demonstartions. Others who broke away from a pro-regime demonstration on nov 13th and chanted against the regime were also shot dead. state workers and students are ordered to attend.

    who told Steele that the muslim brothers and salafis have taken the upper hand in the opposition? they are certainly present, but they don’t have ‘the upper hand’. the Brotherhood still has a minimal presence inside syria.

    as Steele notes, the civil war has already started. the regime must be blamed for this. Syria had a chance eight months ago to avoid sectarian conflict and move forward carefully and peacefully. it seems that chance has gone. Russia must share some of the blame for its grotesque siding with an irrational, destructive regime. there has beeen no wisdom in russia’s position at all. the arab league knows that war is here and is rightly terrified of its regional implications. The league is doing the right thing by pressuring Asad in the faint hope that prominent men of state will realise the game is up and stage a coup. If the league had moved six months ago this scenario would have been more likely.

    there will be war so long as the regime remains in place. A Western intervention isn’t going to happen. The rapidly growing Free Syrian Army will play the crucial role, with Arab funding, and quite possibly launching attacks from a Turkish-imposed safe haven in the north. A quick victory is unlikely but is very much to be hoped for because the longer the war goes on the more sectarian it will become.

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