We are approaching one year since the uprisings in Syria began. When it all erupted in Deraa, both President Assad and his wife tried to see some of the families who had been impacted, apparently to show some degree of humanitarian concern. However, thereafter the military violence against the protesters increased exponentially leading to the horrific events which have so dramatically been shown around the world on our television screens.
Assad had allowed his Makhlouf cousins to control a huge portion of the economy. It is essentially his Alawite family cabal which is spearheading the military onslaught and running the political show. An early speech to the Syrian parliament blaming foreign agitators was the final flight from reality. For two years the Turkish government had quietly sought to persuade Assad to begin a political reform process, and when demonstrations erupted in Tunisia, urgently tried to persuade him to act, to no avail. For years, other Arab leaders had ceased to trust him. The question of how a formerly London-based ophthalmologist, married to a beautiful, modern and highly intelligent woman, can willingly be at the epicentre of this process of national self-destruction, is frankly unanswerable.
A year on, there is no clear way forward. The Arab League, which at first reacted firmly to the Syrian crisis, is now divided. The call by Kofi Annan for a dialogue between the Assad government and the opposition is in practice unacceptable to both. The remaining more secular anti-Islamist Arab governments look with huge concern at the outlook for Egypt and Tunisia, believe Syria could be next, and so also call for dialogue. Christian leaders in both Lebanon and Syria also plead for some basis to end the violence which is teetering on a full-scale civil or sectarian war. They look on with horror at what has happened to Christian communities elsewhere in the Arab world.
By contrast, others, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are allegedly supplying money and armaments to the anti-Assad forces, and mercenaries too. Iranian special forces are actively involved, fearful of losing their only Arab ally, and the Russians have continued to supply weaponry to the Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army is uncoordinated and totally lacking strategic control. The divided Syrian National Council has only very limited links to the fighters on the ground. China has blocked UN resolutions because it is opposed in principle to intervention in other countries, whilst Russia fears, inter alia, the loss of its only Arab friend and yet more potential Islamist influence in the region, since they have their own such problems closer to home.
For all this confusion, it is clear that the situation is now terminal. The currency has collapsed, tourism is non-existent, and it is only a matter of time before the Sunni middle class becomes openly antagonistic. Food and fuel shortages are now a part of daily life. One Government minister has publicly defected, as have senior military personnel, but with little or no publicity. The vengeance of the killing machine against defectors’ familes is beyond dispute and remains a real, if diminishing, deterrent.
It would be miraculous if effective Government-opposition talks were to take place. Given the paralysis in the Arab League and in the United Nations the end game in Syria is likely to be internal. So far, Aleppo and Damascus, where President Assad still enjoys support, have been substantially immune from IRA-type bombing and assassinations. But as the numbers grow of those supporting the Free Syrian Army – in whatever form – it will be impossible for either the security services or the army to maintain control. As it is, most Sunni conscripts are confined to barracks. The loyal Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division of brother Maher Assad are essentially Alawite, and have led the attacks on Homs, Hama and Deraa. They have been charged with protecting Damascus.
Senator John McCain has suggested that the US Air Force take out specific military targets, simply to speed up the Assad exodus. No American President would sanction this, yet if murder and mayhem continue to multiply, others may well respond in this vein. There are certainly those in the Syrian opposition who would favour such a course, but recognise the huge obstacles in securing an acceptable mandate to do this. However, they would at a minimum welcome more external support in the form of communications and protective equipment, on top of humanitarian assistance.
Syria has a unique tradition of remarkable religious and ethnic tolerance, which by scores of years pre-dates the Assads. In the past, after any upheaval, this spirit of mutual co-existence has always reasserted itself. This time, however, the minorities fear that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region may well engulf Syria post-Assad, with frightening consequences for them.
The country’s financial reserves will be exhausted this summer. Our admirable and until recent ambassador there, Simon Collis, believes that the regime will be gone by Christmas. In the absence of armed intervention or a sudden voluntary departure of the Assads, or some dialogue between them and the opposition, he is entirely correct. For all the current confusion about how and what to do, in the end l suspect the decisive factor will be the economy, stupid, after all.
That this hauntingly beautiful and ancient country, the cradle in large part of our own civilisation, has been driven into the tragic fate which has befallen its people is simply heartbreaking.