Can Syria stop its disintegration?

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In his first Easter message, Pope Francis referred specifically and with passion to the bloodshed and suffering in Syria. Today, our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian, offers his latest article on the desperate situation in the country. Harry is our regular studio guest for the podcast series ‘Middle East Analysis’.


It is not long ago that we overstepped the two-year anniversary of the Syrian uprisings.

What started in Dara’a (in southern Syria alongside the Jordanian border) and later country-wide as a series of peaceful and reform-oriented demonstrations was met with uncompromising firepower. I suppose I was one of those who were hopeful enough to think that the young president of Syria would look around him, perhaps recall his own experiences, work on his better instincts and then blink long enough to yield to those legitimate popular demands. At that stage, I did not frankly wish him to meet the fate of some other Arab rulers and I was daft enough to think he did not wish that end to be his destiny either.

But rather than meeting those demands for reform with an open mind, President Assad and his clique demonstrated instead an execrable form of dictatorship and countered the hopes and aspirations of Syrian men and women with a dismissive shrug and a most disproportionate riposte that led to an unremitting cycle of vicious and bloody episodes. A belief in the invincibility of the ruling family, with its clannish and Ba’ath structures, coupled perhaps with both internal and external pressures, led the regime to counter those demonstrations hailing silmiyyeh silmiyyeh (peaceful, peaceful) slogans with unruly thugs, snipers, rape, torture and death. Two years down the road, Scud missiles as well as cluster and TNT bombs have become the hallmark of a regime hell-bent on wiping out so-called terrorists. Also two years down the road since I was almost willing Bashar Al-Assad to meet those demonstrators at least halfway, I too am no longer able to conceptualise any helpful win-win solution that could serve the overall interests of all citizens in this battered country.

But let us put dramatics aside. The statistics are there, and they lend to painful reading. With well over 70,000 dead, roughly 2 million internally displaced, almost another 2 million refugees in neighbouring countries, as well as the wanton destruction of a history-rich country, do we not have a clear responsibility to protect and to say that ‘enough is enough’?

I know the story has altered since those initial months of demonstrations. Syria itself is badly fragmented, neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and (to a lesser extent) Turkey are feeling the political and humanitarian brunt of the war in Syria as they gaspingly watch their economies dodder from the refugee problem. Equally dangerously, there is now a mounting sense of sectarianism in a country that was peacefully multi-ethnic. It has polarised tensions between Sunnis, Christians, Druze, Alawites and Kurds and frenzied a small cross-section of the Syrian populace with the importation of small numbers of extremist and reprehensible jihadist elements from abroad who – as Ahmad Moaz Al-Khatib, the Syrian opposition leader almost yelled last week – are foreign elements whose ideologies and attitudes are not only alien to the majority of Syrian citizens but are increasingly gaining popularity as a result of their successes on the terrain.

Meanwhile, and while the regime still seems to be receiving unclear amounts of munitions and monies to use against the rebels, allegedly from Iran and Russia, a large chunk of the opposition forces are still fighting with lighter arms. The US Administration refuses to take a clear lead and the EU is – not unusually – divided, hesitant and in political contradiction.

Notwithstanding other questions about the use of violence, including principled opposition to all its manifestations, it seems to me on purely pragmatic grounds that the very argument which suggests that arming rebel forces in Syria is dangerous because it strengthens radical Islamist forces or creates anti-Western elements is brittle. Like countless other men and women, whether in Syria or elsewhere, whether Christian or Muslim, I too am gravely concerned about such radical (often cross-referenced as Islamist) forces with a vision that disowns and demeans ‘the other’ from consolidating their power. This could well lead to further violence and atrocities. But those radical forces, whether sourced from the country or more likely from abroad, are already receiving ample weapons from their donors and supporters anyway. So it really makes scant difference to them if the EU and other parties desist from providing them with arms since they will continue getting stronger as they weaponise their militias, score successes against an equally vicious regime, and slowly become ideologically more popular at the expense of most sons and daughters of Syria who have suffered much already for their dignity and freedoms. Ironically, not assisting those opposition elements who refuse a sectarian and riven Syria actually strengthens extreme forces and depletes any hope for a secular and inclusive future for the country.

It is essential to break the violent logjam and avoid the situation deteriorating further as both Assad and anti-Assad forces fight it out and the country risks splintering into ungovernable fiefdoms. It is unforgivable if the world were to sit this conflict out, just as it is inexcusable if it attempts to barter the Iran nuclear dossier for the survival of an Assad dynasty. Woe betide us all if our political dishonesty or inertia sustains, or worse breeds, an executive dominance that Lord Hailsham, a former Lord Chancellor, described aptly in the BBC Dimbleby Lecture in 1976 as ‘elective dictatorship’.

So is Syria disintegrating in front of our eyes? Are snide external interests and internecine internal weaknesses compromising its future? Are we purposely debilitating Syria in order to remap the topography of the region? Can the leaders of those fearful communities who feel caught between a rock and a hard place evince the prophetic courage that is associated with human liberty? Can we at least meet some of the staggering humanitarian needs of Syrians inside or outside their country? Should we not act now… or have we perchance given up on the reality of Syria?

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