Syria and the battle for regional control

David Hearst writes: Two years on, they are still haggling over the name. An Arab spring? Springs are seasonal, and tumultuous though transitional government is, what they have in Egypt and Tunisia is a long way away from an Arab winter. If the wave of revolt sweeping across the postcolonial borders of the Arab world looks as irreversible as the one that brought down the Soviet empire, revolution does not fit the bill either.

Revolutions topple monarchs. This one has gone through republican dictators like a dose of salts but has yet to have the same effect on the royal families of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, although of course the royal households are rightly petrified that it still will. How about the Arab awakening? Few words can do justice to the street battles of Syria, where 150 to 200 people, most of them civilians, die each day, but awakening is not one of them. This needs a label as brutal and as clinical as the daily trade of aerial bombardment and suicide bombings. An ethno-sectarian conflict?

Words matter. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tore into the UN, and by implication Russia, which wields the veto at the security council, for not intervening in Syria at a conference in Istanbul on Saturday. In Bosnia, he said, the UN claimed it did not know what was going on, but in Syria they lack even this fig leaf.

However, the same conference, the Istanbul World Forum, heard that if Syria follows the trajectory of other ethnic conflicts, Erdogan may be right to keep the rhetoric high, and the military response low. Turkey’s response to a series of border skirmishes with the Syrian army has been muted – at least by the standards of the Turkish army.

Steven Heydemann of the US Institute for Peace rattled off some stylised facts about ethno-sectarian conflicts: they last on average between four and four-and-a-half years; foreign intervention extends the life of a civil war by 156%. Where the conflict ends by one side winning militarily, the average number of deaths is 133,000, as opposed to 86,000 if the conflict is concluded by negotiation. Most of the countries that have gone through civil war relapse into violence. And a transition to democracy is least likely to be final.

The conclusion is bleak. If Syria follows this path, the 33,000 deaths it has so far caused may just be the start of what is to come. Heydemann’s logic isn’t necessarily anti-intervention. If you look at the 70% of the Syrian countryside that is liberated from government control, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is already happening and the longer this conflict goes on, he argues, the more pressure Obama will come under to protect this part of the Syrian population which is vulnerable from the air.

What emerges loud and clear from Istanbul is that toppling Assad is not the problem. With the right weapons, it could be over in two months. It’s the makeup and allegiance of the post-Assad government that Syria’s regional neighbours are really fighting for. The proxy war being waged in Syria is a battle not for Syrians, but for regional control. [Continue reading…]

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