From Libya to Syria?

As the tussle between the insurgent forces and the Gaddafi administration nears its end, Western minds will be turning more decisively to events in Syria where the minority Alawite administration is using its security and military resources to withstand the persistent and geographically widening popular demonstrations against its rule. It has been observed that the main Western powers on the Security Council have been reluctant to even suggest any form of outside intervention in Syria as the Libyan contest has dragged on longer that they anticipated. And this is so even as Syrian firepower against the demonstrators has grown, rather than eased, in the face of appeals from outside to seek a negotiated resolution of the issue.

The regime of President Bashar al Assad, established by his father, used military force to usurp power from the founding nationalist Baath Party, but still employed the ideological orientation of the Baath as a political cloak for gaining wider legitimacy in the country. So the Alawites, representing only about 12% of the population, but now rigidly networked through the main public and apparently popular institutions of the state, have been able to hold on to power since 1963, almost as long as the Nasserist regime (encompassing the Mubarak administration) taking office in 1952, lasted. From an Arab perspective, of course, the fact of longevity is not in itself a dominant factor in the loss of legitimacy of a regime. For an area which recognizes the longevity of monarchies really has as a prerequisite two bases of legitimacy: first, an ability to provide an ideology, religious or political, that is sustained by acceptable institutions; and secondly, an ability, in the era of rising popular economic aspirations now magnified by the new means of telecommunications, to service such aspirations. In Syria, the Baathist Party, under the rule of the Alawites has lacked a widespread popularity as it has denuded the nationalist ideology of popular acceptability, and it has lacked a sufficiency of oil to be able to dispense largesse to a restless population as the Saudis and the smaller monarchies in the area have been able, so far, to do.

The international community has, in general, been tolerant of the Syrian regime over the years, except to the extent that it was thought to be developing a nuclear capability. True, the United States has always resented what it considered to be Syrian interference in the politics of Lebanon, holding the present regime responsible for periodic political assassinations there. But the Americans have taken a less intense attitude to Syrian interference since the major attack on their forces in Lebanon in 1983, and their recognition of the complex relationship that exists between the Syrians and Hezbollah.  Further, within the Middle East itself the country has been perceived as having a strategic location, bordering as it does Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, not to talk of Israel which, having taken over the Golan Heights from Syria, has found that country willing to maintain a certain stability in the area. In that geopolitically sensitive context, the United States, while calling for a mediated solution, is obviously reluctant to suggest any repetition of the intervention in Libya, tentative as its own participation has been there. It is well aware of the fact that other major and middle powers – Russia, China, Turkey, will be hard put to support another UN Resolution 1973-type initiative; and that there would be a real danger of the deliberate opening up of fronts on Syria’s own borders in the event of an intervention.

But the so-called Arab Spring has made many countries in the Middle East more tolerant of popular opinion which is now responsive to  electronic mobilization, and they naturally fear the effects of an uprising anywhere that can spill over into their own borders. In the case of the present events in Syria, therefore, and recognizing the extent to which international intervention in Libya (seen as the result of Gaddafi’s intransigence) has permitted a new situation of Western dominance in the region, they have sought to take initiatives directed at inducing Bashar al Assad towards a negotiated resolution of the uprising. Turkey, traditionally taking a more hands-off position, but well aware of the effects of the American intervention in Iraq on the Kurdish region there, has been seeking to persuade Assad to begin negotiations. And more recently, Iran, a strong ally of Syria in the context of the effects of the American intervention in Iraq, has, through its Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, called on Assad at the end of August, to respond to the “legitimate demands of the people,” insisting that government “should answer to the demands of its people, be its Syria, Yemen or other countries.” And his rationale is made palpably clear – “A vacuum in the Syrian regime would have an unpredictable impact on the region and its neighbours.”

The ascendancy of the opposition forces in Libya, and what would appear to be an inevitable widespread recognition of the regime that emerges, is now likely to shift diplomatic pressure to Syria. It is probably the case that we shall see a more active presence in that diplomacy on the part of the Middle Eastern countries themselves, even as they are aware that the Nato powers will have been buoyed up by their victory in Libya. But the Western powers well understand the limitation of military power in the Middle East, and in any case do not have the incentive of the protection of oil contracts as they have had in Libya. It is noteworthy that, in spite of a close connection between the under-pressure Yemeni regime and the US which has depended on that location in its fight against al Qaeda, the US was prepared to allow Middle Eastern diplomacy led by Saudi Arabia to seek a resolution of the problem there.

The focus is therefore likely to be on a turn to the forum of the UN with a stronger diplomatic participation by the regional powers including Turkey, and perhaps more sensitively, Iran. This diplomacy will focus as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been insisting, on reminding the Syrian leadership that, like the Libyan leadership, in pursuing “the use of force against the civilian population… they are accountable under international human rights law for all acts of violence perpetrated against [that population].“ Turkey’s emphasis on the regime keeping promises made to the population, in particular the effective lifting of the Emergency Law which the regime ruled under, as a prelude to further meaningful concessions by the regime, is also likely to be emphasized.

To some hardliners, such sentiments addressed to the Syrians may sound naïve. But the Secretary General will be well aware of the negative potential for outside intervention in the Middle East. He will be well aware too of a certain weakness on the part of the Arab League, given the situation in Egypt. And he has probably concluded that not only will the US be disinclined to engage in any such adventure, but that there has been much concern in the US itself (as expressed by the retiring Defence Secretary Robert Gates) that even the limited participation by the US in the Libyan intervention has been deemed too much by American citizens.

So it seems that as Libya winds down, so to speak, a more deliberate diplomacy will be applied to the Syrian regime. But this will necessarily take place in the context of the complexity of the country’s social make-up. One author has described the country as “a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond.” That, when put together with the sensitivity of the country’s location, is likely to induce more temperance on the issue of the use of external force that was exercised in Libya.

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