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Syria on the edge

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Syria on the edge
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by Cristiana Era
The mass protests sparking throughout the Near and Middle East region since March 2011 do not seem to entail a major breakthrough in Syria as it has been the case elsewhere. Thus, while Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and only to a certain extent Egypt - are experiencing a regime change, after almost one year Bashar al-Assad continues to send his troops to pull down the opposition groups by laying waste cities like Homs, Hama. Idlib and Zabadani.
And while the military crackdown against the population is raising the death toll on a daily basis, a negotiated solution is still out of sight. The efforts of the Arab League to press Assad to step down and put an end to the massacre of civilians have repeatedly failed, first in October, when a UN resolution condemning the violence in Syria crashed into Russia and China’s vetoes; and then in January, with the useless envoy of observers who became hostages of a military apparatus actively committed to prevent any freedom of movement.
The recent proposal for a interposition force is still debated at the UN headquarters as well as within the international diplomatic set. But the Syrian Foreign Ministry made it clear that the Government will oppose any foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the country. And the regime relies on the stubborn position of Moscow, which is looking at that possibility as a new dangerous attempt to the principle of State sovereignty after the Libyan precedent. Indeed, Russia’s stance should not come as a surprise, given the democratic vacuum that the Kremlin itself is undergoing.  Troubled by accusation of ballot rigging and political intimidations in the latest elections, haunted by the superpower legacy of the Cold War, and spurred by economic interests in the region, the current Russian administration is determined to maintain its influence in Syria. An estimated $4 billion-deal in defense contracts, combined with the resolution of maintaining the delicate balance in one of the most critical geopolitical areas and the willingness to avoid possible  involvement by the West under the cover of humanitarian intervention, is a sufficient guarantee of Moscow’s unwavering support to Assad. Furthermore, the practice of resorting to the humanitarian intervention by the US and its allies as a rationale for military operations in foreign territories is indeed raising Russian and Chinese worries, since both Moscow and Beijing do not score high in terms of respect of human rights and do not like the perspective of a possible future justification for an undue interference by the international community on something which is strictly considered a “domestic issue”.
At the international level Damascus is also benefiting from the support  of Teheran and of the Lebanese Hezbollah, both being a channel for arms supply, and from the internal division of the Arab League. The US and the EU have so far limited their involvement to economic sanctions and to public statements of condemnation for the brutality of the protests repression, calling for the Syrian President to step aside. Domestic economic constraints and budget-draining decennial conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that demanded a significant toll in terms of human lives are among the main reasons of the cautious attitude of the Obama administration, which would have to justify new expenses for military intervention in front of American taxpayers during the electoral campaign. The EU policy is also non- existent: plagued by economic problems within the Union, the Member States are reluctant to get involved in a direct action without the American leadership and with the opposition of China and Russia.
Internally the regime is far from being on the verge of collapse. The opposition groups are not able to speak with one voice and the defections of army officers are not necessarily swelling the Free Syrian Army ranks, which remain lightly armed and have to reckon with Iraqi al-Qaida cells who, according to American intelligence sources, are trying to exert an influence on the opposition by carrying out terrorist attacks against Assad’s troops and by facilitating the flow from Iraq of those who want to fight the regime, thus raising support among the Syrians for the jihad cause. Jihadists are also particularly eager to help the opposition to get rid of the regime of the much hated Nusayri-‘Alawites, a minor Shi’a sect, guilty of having ruled the country introducing secular principles to the detriment of the Shari’a laws.
Even though the Alawites – to which the Assad family belongs to – represent a small minority in Syria, they have been successful  in their attempt to gather support among the Sunni élite, prominent religious figures, other minorities and business groups, who have seen their interests protected under the Alawites and who are now afraid of marginalization and reprisals in a post-Assad Syria. As some analysts have rightly pointed out, there is a difference between the Syrian riots and the Arab Spring movements in the rest of the area, since they started not in the wealthier urban areas, but in the poor rural periphery, where the economic cleavages, mismanagement and corruption practices have had a stronger impact.
Thus, domestic and international reasons explain why Assad is still in power and why he will continue to keep it in the short and medium term. An external intervention, if any, will have to be carefully weighted, considering the possible disastrous outcomes in the Middle East region. Currently, the policy recommendations of certain analysts who are urging the US President to take action to help the opposition to overthrow Assad, either with a military intervention on the ground or with the imposition of a Libyan-style no fly zone seem to be dangerous if not actually irresponsible. Moscow is determined to protect its interests in the area and to keep Assad in power. And while the fall of the regime is certainly possible, any decision by the international community should not ignore that the opposition groups fighting against the regime are divided and lack a common socio-economic program capable of gathering the general support. Furthermore, the outburst of violence on both sides is frightening the peaceful wings of the protesters, who might decide to hold back for fear of a State collapse as it is happening in Libya. It may sound undemocratic, but to many, a bad government is better than no government at all, or – as political scientists like to call it – better than a failed State.
At this stage, the only viable solution seems to be a negotiated envoy of the blue helmets as an interposition force that does not aim at a regime change. If the Western diplomacies accept this condition, they might be able to get Russia and China to side with them and agree to a UN intervention. And while the decision making capabilities of the international community appear to be stuck, in Syria violence continues to kill the population.

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