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Raghida Dergham

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The Different Syrian Regime as Fractured and Shaken by the Uprising

Posted: 04/30/11 02:08 PM ET

The rift between the Syrian government on one hand, and the U.S. Administration and European governments on the other hand, is not skin deep, while the wound suffered by the regime in Damascus is not at all minor. What happened in Syria in the past few weeks has put an end to relations that had been carefully woven by the Syrian government, after it has been revealed that the regime and its authoritarian approaches have chosen to snub all and any reform, under any circumstances. It is to be or not to be for those who have grown accustomed to being in power and around it. For this reason, it is difficult for them to implement promises of reform. They are forced to choose between the risk of complying with the demands of the reformists, which might lead to the equation of "take and demand more", while this time being on the giving side. Or they have to choose the other option, which traditionally calls for decisive action, repression, intimidation and the use of force to "break" those who dared raise their heads and make demands. Regardless of whether this was at the behest of a spontaneous agreement or otherwise, among the senior officials of the Syrian regime, the decision has been made to adopt the second option, and it will not be easy to backtrack on this after that. This in turn means postponing what President Bashar al-Assad had in mind, he who had been hitherto portrayed by the political and PR machine as being a "man of reform". The rumbling of the tanks has risen to mute the voices of civilian protesters, and it is no longer possible for countries and individuals who sympathize with the Assad regime, or those who admire him and his wife Asmaa, to turn a deaf ear - except for those of them who are in Russia, China and Lebanon. With regard to the relationship between the United States and Syria, and the relationship between Europe and Syria, these have entered a new juncture that will prove costly for the regime in Damascus, not just economically, in case serious sanctions are imposed, but also morally and politically. This is because Damascus has placed its relationship with the United States at the top of its priorities and made good use of its relationship with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in order to reap great benefits for itself in Lebanon and to avoid isolation and being held to account. But today, those who are holding the Syrian regime to account are the Syrian people, who have the right to hold their government accountable like any other people in any given country. The Syrian government is wagering on international and regional powerlessness. But in fact, it is taking a risk by making such a wager. It would have made a better choice if it had wagered instead on partnership with the Syrian people to create radical change in their relationship, and on a lucid interpretation of the regional situation. It should have understood that the change in the regional map was perhaps an opportunity for it to rearrange its scattered interferences and alliances, stretching from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon. But Damascus, once again, is playing its "cards" with excess, and is behaving with both panic and arrogance.

Damascus is perhaps wagering on the unwillingness of Western nations to open a new front in Syria, similar to the one they opened in Libya when NATO began carrying out air strikes there, and it is right in making such an assumption. However, European countries, the United States and many countries in the world will not remain silent and stand idly by while the repression of civilians continues, casualties increase, hundreds of people are thrown in jail and the world is prevented from seeing what is happening. For these countries, it will not be sufficient to issue condemnation and denouncement, they will be forced to take "measures" to isolate the Syrian regime and to impose sanctions. In truth, those countries themselves are monitored by NGOs like Amnesty International, which demands the prosecution of those who violate human rights laws, or Human Rights Watch, which holds to account governments that bury their heads in the sand and pretend to see or hear no evil. There are many NGOs investigating and getting ready to hold to account countries that give regimes a free pass to commit crimes against their people. Today, the principle of the "responsibility to protect" people who fall victim to their governments is in force, and the case of Libya has recorded an important precedent in putting such a principle to work. Yet there is also the wager made by the Syrian regime, and along with it China and Russia, on the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) refraining from referring Syria to the Security Council, as they previously did in the case of Libya.

China, and with it India and Russia, support a regional initiative on the Syrian issue, while it has strongly opposed placing the events in Syria on the Security Council's agenda. These countries have exploited the stance taken by Lebanon - the only Arab member in the Security Council - whose Foreign Minister, Ali Shami, said that he told Ambassador Nawaf Salam to reject issuing a Security Council statement, which would otherwise require unanimity. The three countries pointed to the stances taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council and by the League of Arab States on the issue of Libya, stances which were not taken on the issue of Syria. In this vein, China underscored the role played by the Gulf Cooperation Council in Yemen and to the fact that the Security Council has been waiting for the outcome of its initiative. Chinese diplomacy also spoke of efforts and attempts to launch a regional initiative in the Syrian issue in hopes that it will produce results. This might have been perfectly alright had the Gulf Cooperation Council been prepared to be decisive over the issue of Syria the way it has acted decisively on the issues of Libya and Yemen. This is perhaps an opportunity to radically reform Syria's relationship with its Arab environment. The circumstances in which the regime in Damascus finds itself may be appropriate for rethinking the Syrian regime's traditional strategy, which it has pursued for decades - the strategy of playing the Iranian card, in the Gulf, in Iraq, in Palestine or in Lebanon. An initiative such as this would be of great help in defining a new regional order; one that would be less tense, provided that the Syrian regime becomes convinced that it would be better for it, and for Syria to focus exclusively on serious, extraordinary and quick domestic reform. This is while Syria must put a stop to its traditional policy based on interfering in neighboring countries through militias or through alliances with Iran, in order to gain benefits in its relations with the Gulf and bargain with international actors.

The events in Syria have damaged the chances for a settlement. It would be better for the leadership in Damascus to behave realistically and rationally and to calculate intelligently, without arrogance and obstinacy. Even the sect will place its long-term interests and survival above those of the family in times of change such as those which the Arab World is going through today, and that is something that is important to pay heed to, especially at the level of the military institution. Perhaps President Bashar Al-Assad is arming himself with Russian and Chinese support and with the fact that they are providing him with some measure of impunity. India- the homeland of democracy in the Third World - is perhaps also sending obscure messages that might encourage the regime in Damascus to believe that it will be able to overcome popular and international pressure and come out miraculously unscathed. Perhaps the Syrian President is comparing the support he enjoys from the likes of Russia and China to the absolute support the United States affords to Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, moving forward as he pleases without being held to account. And perhaps he is wagering on some kind of trade-off within such a framework, knowing that Netanyahu is now ready to play the game of the tracks, i.e. to pretend to revive the Syrian-Israeli track of negotiations with the aim of blocking the path of the Palestinian-Israeli track towards making peace.

The race is on: Netanyahu wants to anticipate any ideas put forward by Barack Obama on the Palestinian issue, in order to block the path of an American initiative that would force him to accept the two-state solution as envisioned by the United States, Europe and the rest of the international community. Netanyahu also wants to mobilize the Obama Administration in order to thwart the Obama's promise of Palestine becoming a member of the United Nations by next September. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is moving on the basis of having lost hope in American promises. This is why he said "We both went up the tree. After that, [Obama] came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder". The Israeli press revealed that the Obama Administration has threatened to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority if it insists on heading to the United Nations by gathering the support of more than 150 countries for recognizing membership of the State of Palestine. It also revealed that Israeli President Shimon Peres informed Barack Obama that there was no intention to stop Israeli settlement-building, knowing that Obama had made this issue a priority which he failed to resolve, leading to the failure of the broader movement for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Today, Netanyahu is using the reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as an opportunity to escalate against the Palestinian Authority. He considers it to be in his interest to revive the Syrian track despite the fact that this track remains crippled by Damascus's refusal to break its ties with Iran, put a stop to its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon and cease its complete support of armed Palestinian factions, considered by Damascus to be resistance by proxy. Thus Israel is moving on the American scene, with the Congress, the Administration and the media, in order to relieve pressure on the Syrian government on the basis of the saying "the devil we know", and on the basis that the alternative would be the Islamists - which in turn represents a common denominator between what the Syrians and Israelis are saying. However, what is taking place on the Syrian scene between the regime and the people cannot be controlled by Israel, which explains their concern. There is also the Hezbollah element, in light of developments in Syria, and reports of its involvement in the repressive containment of protesters. This is not to mention the official accusation directed by Barack Obama against Bashar Al-Assad of making use of Iran's assistance to stifle his people's uprising. Benyamin Netanyahu may not be concerned with this aspect of developments, but the interests of the United States and of Europe require different considerations. That is why it would be wise for the Syrian regime to pay heed to such differences instead of assuming that things are business as usual

Something extraordinary has taken place on the Syrian scene, as well as at the level of international relations with Syria - whether it is on the part of the United States, Europe, China, Russia, Israel, Turkey or the Arab World. After the uprising, the regime in Damascus is no longer the same, and its options ahead are different. It is faced with the model of the Libyan regime and the fate that awaits Muammar Gaddafi. And it is faced with the model of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who bargained to secure a fate different to that of Muammar Gaddafi, that of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his family, or that of runaway Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his family. Indeed, countries now come before families in the minds of the leaders of the Arab uprising.

The damage is done, and the time has come to make the wise choice before it is too late.

 

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