It has similarities with other Arab spring uprisings, but what sets Syria apart – in addition to the stance of China and Russia – is its mosaic of various religions, sects and ethnic groups and the risk that the country will fragment with dire consequences, writes Libyan-born author
When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of uprisings in a part of the world far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots. Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as the Arab world had in fact already seen important, albeit failed, uprisings. For example the Muslim Brotherhood's revolt against Hafez Al-Assad in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by Saddam Hussein.
This time it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine's dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect that followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own leadership. Before long President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and then Syria.
Despite the apparent similarities in the Arab rebellions taking place across the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened. The relatively benign dictatorships – Tunisia and Egypt – collapsed much more easily than the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine's regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, it did not come early enough for members of the political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.
By contrast the Gaddafi regime in Libya had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria had even longer to brace for a similar insurgency. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, it meant the spread of the Arab spring lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as the regime's forces rallied to roll back the rebels' advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Gaddafi's fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region's rebels from near Sirte all the way back to my own city Benghazi.
Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Gaddafi's threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies "street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house", France along with the United Kingdom and after some hesitancy the United States successfully obtained the Arab League's consent for a possible aerial intervention in Libya. The aim was to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not dissimilar what had happened in Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia back in 1995. France, the UK, and the US also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nations Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The French, British and Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially the point authorising all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Gaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Gaddafi's lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, the regime quickly retreated all the way back to Gaddafi's birthplace Sirte. Buoyed by such a speedy withdrawal, the rebels advanced just as quickly all the way to an area not far from Sirte, while exuding new-found confidence that the regime would crumble in a few weeks or less. That, of course, did not happen, and the conflict entered a prolonged stalemate that lasted for many months before the regime in Tripoli collapsed and Gaddafi himself was captured and killed near Sirte in October 2011.
Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the UK and the US were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad. This began when protesters called for the 'Friday of Dignity' and Syrians initiated the first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, Syria's protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting Assad alone. When it gradually dawned on the rebels that overthrowing the regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.
Nonetheless, the situation in Syria was significantly different from that of Libya. First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, finances, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the long-time enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israel, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab spring: major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya's post-Gaddafi politics. Outside powers feared that, yet again, the Arab spring in Syria could very well lead to an 'Islamist winter'.
The differences between Libya's situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also internal differences. To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria's is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups were held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son's regime collapses, it is not inconceivable that it might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. Relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria's other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime's most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs.
The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime's survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect. Forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another 'Lebanon'. Husam Dughman was born in Libya and his family opposed the Gaddafi regime. He is a former professor of political science and the author of Tête-à-tête with Muhammad