As soon as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria gets “written guarantees” from the “armed terrorist groups” to surrender, announced the Syrian foreign ministry on April 8, it will comply with its promise to withdraw its tanks and artillery from rebellious Syrian cities.
The regime also wants “guarantees of commitment by the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop financing the armed terrorist groups”.
The United Nations and the Arab League thought they had a deal. The Syrian government had promised the mediator, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, that it would remove all its heavy weapons from urban areas by last Tuesday and accept a complete cease-fire by yesterday. But then Damascus announced that the international community had been “mistaken” to think that it was really going to pull its troops out.
“Kofi Annan has not furnished the Syrian government with written guarantees about the acceptance of the armed terrorist groups to stop violence in all its forms, and their readiness to surrender their weapons so that state authority can spread on all territory,” the statement said.
In other words, as soon as the pro-democracy side surrenders unconditionally, peace will be restored.
Annan, the UN together with the Arab League were doing the best they could, but with no member country willing to use military force against Syria, they had no leverage. If Assad really pulled all his troops out of Syrian cities, they would then immediately fall into the hands of the opposition, so he wasn’t going to do that.
The senior people at the UN and the Arab League who approved the deal were hoping at least to put an end to the Syrian regime’s use of excessive force against civilians. Assad was obviously not going to give up power meekly. But innocent lives would be saved if he could just be persuaded to stop using tanks and artillery against cities. He would probably continue killing his opponents on a retail basis, but the wholesale killing would stop.
However, Assad only agreed to the UN proposal because Russia and China needed some diplomatic cover for continued vetoing of any action against Syria by the Security Council. But no country is willing to pay the price in lives of a military intervention in Syria anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what the Security Council says — and moving to a lower-profile strategy would have a significant cost for the regime.
Suppressing the uprising, one murder at a time, with the regime’s intelligence services and “special forces” operating in hostile urban areas, would cost a lot of casualties. The regime calculated the likelihood of foreign military intervention, concluded that it was zero, and reneged on the deal.
It was worth trying to de-escalate the conflict, but it isn’t going to happen. Shelling cities with tanks and artillery is a highly inefficient way of restoring government control over them, but it keeps the casualties down on the regime side.
So has the Assad regime won despite the deaths of 9 000 protesters? Probably. Non-violent resistance to tyranny is a powerful tool, but no political technique works every time without fail, and Syria’s Baath party is always a hard target.
It is a single-party regime dominated by and mainly serving the interests of a minority, the Alawites (only 10% of the population), who fear catastrophic revenge by the majority if they lose power. However, it also has significant support from other minorities, notably the Christians and the Druze.
Most of the people in these groups have swallowed the guff about “armed terrorist groups”, and they are all terrified of majority rule, which they are convinced would hand power to the Sunni Muslims (70% of the population). That was not the goal of the original protesters, who genuinely believed in a non-sectarian Syrian democracy, but the Assad regime is adroit at the game of divide-and-rule.
The prospect of a non-violent transition to a democratic Syria that commands the loyalty of all the country’s religious and ethnic groups has vanished. The people who tried to make that happen were astoundingly brave. They kept their protests entirely peaceful for seven months despite extreme regime violence, but now most of them have either been killed or have taken up arms.
The remaining options are both bad. If Assad succeeds in suppressing all resistance, Syria will be an even more oppressive and unjust place than it was before. If he only partially succeeds, there will be civil war like the one that devastated Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. There is no plausible third option.
Am I saying that an Assad victory is Syria’s best remaining option? No, I cannot bring myself to say that. But I think that I am writing the epitaph of Syria’s attempted non-violent revolution.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.