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Hichem Karoui: Options for Syria
March 24, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

We live in the wake of two important revolutions that unleashed a wind of freedom that observers everywhere have dubbed “the Arab Spring”: Tunisia and Egypt. Something happened in this region that cannot be undone, denied, ignored, forgotten; and we cannot continue to live as if it does not concern us, “because it is in the other countries.” The Arab League, with its monumental bureaucratic spirit, has fortunately been quick to understand what was at stake and how to adapt to it. The efforts made to help Yemen and Syria get out of their “crisis” are, in this context, honourable, although not sufficient. The situation in Yemen may reverse, because of the continued meddling of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cronies where they should not meddle. Saleh was offered immunity against judiciary prosecution, against the will of many people in his country, for whom he still must face trial. Yet, he is not satisfied with such a “luxurious exit” and he shows it around. Shouldn’t they have subordinated such an “exit” to the condition of abstaining from any political activity in Yemen? I think they should.

In Syria, the situation is worsening everyday because of the inability of the international community to act quickly and cogently. A few days ago, I attended a debate at the Brookings-Doha about the options for regime change. First, I was surprised that the experts were already discussing the military intervention as an option. I thought the Obama administration was unwilling even to raise such an issue, after the withdrawal from Iraq and the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan. Moreover, in an election year, what benefit could any candidate for the presidency draw from calling for a military operation in Syria? However, several options have been actually discussed, and regime change by invasion (Iraq style) or by bombing Assad (Kosovo style) were just two of them.

Let us stick to the facts.

The diplomatic efforts led by UN and Arab League new envoy Kofi Anan may fail, because of at least two enormous obstacles: Russia’s refusal to drop Assad and the inability of the diplomatic community ( Arab League and Friends of Syria included) to force Assad to leave power. What is left then? Some experts from the Brookings suggest putting the pressure on the regime through concerted coercion: isolation, economic sanctions and non-military support to the opposition. But they are aware that this option too may fail. Even with a similar coercion, Saddam Hussein stayed in power for more than a decade. Moreover, the “maritime blockade”, the experts suggest, to “stop goods from entering Syrian ports” would be just as harmful to the Syrian population as inefficient, because the regime receives logistic support, weapons, and aid through its terrestrial borders. By the way, the Arab Summit that is expected to gather in Baghdad this month should pressure Iraq to watch its borders with both Syria and Iran. Everybody knows how easy it is to smuggle weapons and all kinds of merchandise to Assad across those borders.

The experts also suggested a possible reliance on Israel to remove Assad from power. They say, “Israel could posture forces on or near the Golan Heights and, in so doing, might divert regime forces from suppressing the opposition. This posture may conjure fears in the Assad regime of a multi-front war, particularly if Turkey is willing to do the same on its border...” In their opinion, this would convince the military leadership still loyal to Assad to drop him.

This will not work, even if Turkey accepts to do the same thing. Something is missing in this analysis. It is the fact that Israel is actually an invader in the Golan.

How could we imagine that the Syrian opposition would accept “help” from Israel, which is still occupying a Syrian territory by force? Furthermore, would the Arab League accept such a scenario, implicitly meaning that the Arabs would work “hand in hand” with the Israelis, in order to topple Assad? The last point is that Assad, not the opposition, would have more political leverage, if Israel enters the game. His “phantasmagoric” scenario of a huge American-Zionist conspiracy against his regime would thus find ground in the reality.

We are therefore left with the hard scenarios.

Arming the Syrian opposition in order to avoid the worse, which is the invasion scenario, or the air-force “liberation bombing” (Kosovo) that would end up in a humanitarian disaster. Is it realistic to arm the opposition?

Yes, it may be, not because this is the best option, but because not doing it would anyway not hinder the regime from continuing the rampage. Therefore, providing the opposition with weapons to defend itself and the population is the choice of those who have no other choices.

But beware! The Syrian opposition is weak and hardly united. If you want to create another Afghanistan in Syria, go ahead, give the opposition groups all kinds of weaponry, and you will end up with a new “jihadi land,” a haven for Al Qaeda.

In Syria today, there is only one recognised opposition organisation, which is the Syrian National Council (SNC). If you have to give weapons and military assistance to the Syrian opposition, make sure you will have at the other end people who are responsible, reliable, and accountable. Most of all, it would not be acceptable or even moral to bypass the SNC and offer direct military assistance to the FSA (Free Syrian Army), for you would be thus paving the way for the rule of the “best armed” in post-Assad Syria.

Without a supervising political organisation – and you just got the SNC – this option (i.e. arming opposition) would end as a nightmare for the Syrians, the neighbours, the Arabs, the Americans, and the Europeans…

The choice that is made these days would mark the future of Syria and the neighbouring region. Be sure: Russia is and will be anyway against such an option. If, along with arming the opposition, no efforts are made on the diplomatic side to convince Russia and China to join the other nations in a just and honest condemnation of the Assad regime and maybe a concerted course of action to remove him from power, we would be opening the gates to a prolonged civil war.

At the end of the day, it turns out there is no single option in Syria, but maybe several to be implemented at the same time on several fronts.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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