Friday, February 10, 2012

The Syrian situation -- how not to change a regime

Some of my regular morning reading just oozes pessimism about Syria today:

Eshani writes in Syria Comment that Syria’s Opposition Must Find a Different Way.

Note update:  Eshani discusses critiques of his position.

An excerpt:

As the death toll mounts on the streets in Syria, it is important to remember how we got here. Damascus has decided to reassert control over its restive cities by using the full might of its military. This should not come as a surprise to observers and policy makers. Indeed, the surprise is that the government has taken this long to order its offensive.
In the first three months of this crisis, it is fair to suggest that the opposition was largely peaceful. By the summer of 2011, this was beginning to change. The uprising was morphing into an armed resistance as weapons started to surface on Syrian streets. The defining moment was at the beginning of Ramadan.  Contrary to consensus opinion, the government was not deterred by the start of the Holy month. Hama was stormed and taken back from the opposition to the shock of the region. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made its first defining public comment on Alarabiya Television Channel immediately following Hama’s fall to the government, after withdrawing its ambassador from Syria.
Since Hama, Syrian opposition members have begun increasingly to  call to demand weapons and a military response to overpower the regime. For the next 6 months, Syrian streets and neighborhoods became armed enough that the mighty Syrian army had to think twice before entering the developing mini enclaves ruled by the opposition within its cities. Not surprisingly, taking up arms suddenly became the accepted modus operandi of the opposition and the uprising. Those cautioning against such strategies were referred to as ignorant or regime supporters.
Young opposition activists who followed the advice to arm and fight the regime are now being left to fend for themselves against the military Goliath of the Syrian Army. As I wrote following my return from the country, many assured me that the armed forces were yet to use more than 20% of their capacity. As I listened to pronouncements by opposition leaders about the necessity to arm, I could not help but wonder what would happen when Damascus would unleash its full  military might. We will now find out.
While Rastan, Homs and Zabadani were becoming hell for its residents, I was dismayed to see that the so-called brains of this revolution were landing in Doha airport. The purpose of the meeting is of course to focus on “the situation on the ground in Syria” and find ways of “helping the rebels”. How infuriating to see men in suites sit in the comfort of Doha hotels instructing the poor men, women and children of the restive neighborhoods of Syria on what they should do next.  The fact is that since the first calls to arm the population, the brain trust of this revolution sent the people of Syria into a kamikaze mission. Did anyone really think that the Syrian army was going to be defeated at the hands of poor young men with Kalashnikovs?
Those of us living in the comforts of the West are only too familiar with how politicians in democratic countries compete over their “records”. My wish is to see the Syrian opposition begin to discuss President Assad’s  record on the economy, the public sector, illegal housing, the environment, health care, education, the media, and individual liberties. Instead, we seem to hell bent on steering our country straight into an iceberg with 23 million on board.
The Syrian National Council and many Arab and International policy makers who are now pontificating on Syria’s future were nowhere to be seen in 2007, when the President’s second 7-year term began. We have gone from being in a coma to calling for the downfall of the regime and even the hanging of its leader. This is insanity. The Syrian National Council must call for all rebels and opposition groups to stop arming themselves. Instead, it should declare that the opposition set its sights on 2014, when President Assad’s second presidential term will come to an end.
What is needed is a smart and innovative strategy that helps spare lives but effectively convinces the leadership that the old ways of doing business are over. Popular efforts must be spent in writing a new constitution, a bill of rights to calm minority fears, and an economic plan to reassure the business community and workers alike. The standard of living of most Syrians is appalling, so is the education level and health care system. The opposition must channel their energies towards such topics rather than the senseless calls to arm the rebels in what is clearly a suicide mission. 
Juan Cole on the wider dangers of a violent revolutionary strategy:

The first thing that comes to mind at these horrific images is that something should be done.
But what? Sen. John McCain has called for arming the rebels, as has the The New Republic, which appears to be veering again toward Neoconservatism.
My wise colleague Marc Lynch has raised important questions about the wisdom of this course.
I would argue an even stronger case against. Once you flood a country with small and medium arms, it destabilizes it for decades.
Ronald Reagan spread weapons all around northern Pakistan, and in my view began the destabilization of that country, which now has an endemic problem with armed tribes, militias and gangs. I saw the same thing happen in Lebanon shortly before, during the civil war that threw that country into long term fragility. More recently, we saw a civil war in Algeria (1991-2000) that left 150,000 people dead, which is really no different than what has been going on in Syria except that it was on a much larger scale and the West at that time decided to support the secular generals against the rebelling Muslim fundamentalists. The arming of Iraq post-Saddam has left it a horribly violent society for the foreseeable future (a plethora of US arms given to the new Iraqi military and police were often sold off to guerrillas). And while the war would have been longer in Libya if Qatar and France had not secretly armed the rebels, it likely would have had a similar outcome (what was really important was NATO attrition of Libyan armor). And in that case the problem the country now faces, of militia rule and fragmentation, would have been much less severe.
If people don’t think a flood of arms into the hands of Syrian fighters will spill over onto Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/ Palestine, they are just fooling themselves. The Palestinians in the region have largely given up or been made to give up arms, in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But if small and medium arms become widespread and inexpensive, it will take us back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when Palestinian guerrillas shook Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The Palestinians themselves always suffered from a resort to arms, and are best served by a peaceful movement of protest, and a remilitarization of their struggle would produce further tragic setbacks.
Turkey, it should be noted, is against letting arms in to either side. They do not want another ‘dirty war’ in their heavily Kurdish southeast, as happened in the 1980s-1990s.
Update:  Eshani summarizes and answers critiques of his essay. 
And then there is a Joshua Landis interview on the significance of events in the city of Homs.

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