11/08/2012 02:54 pm ET

Syria: A Tragedy in Search of a Denouement

Act I -- Revolution and Repression

Lacking cultural traditions of a free, civil society, and facing economies faltering along with most of the world, petrodollar power has overwhelmed people power, and the Arab Spring has been unable to realize a democratic evolution. Many Arab reformers (Islamist-inspired) still look to the past to find a solution to the problems of modern societies. After months of democratic dreams and inspiring songs, the dreamers of democracy awoke to the nightmare restoration of anti-democratic powers. Traditional regimes and their security structures have prevailed and stolen from the idealistic protesters (youth, women, working classes, minorities) the opportunity to create a modern, democratic state based on civil rights, with long-term stability and security, and with extremists marginalized.

The fuel for this reactionary retrogression obviously has been the gush of Arab petrodollars arming the power players. This reactionary process has also been supported by most of the western states. In fact the West, becoming aware of the de facto end of the postcolonial Pico Sykes agreements (which designed the map of the new Middle East), likely hoped for the emergence of a new course leading to constitutional order, and courageously supported the protests. The message of president Obama to Egypt's youth is very significant: "You will seize your own destiny." Yet, with increasing pressure from the forces of restoration and frightened by the deterioration of security due to the protests, the West has begun to support the restoration process. In the last analysis, energy geopolitics has prevailed; thus was there no voice of protest when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain and began to spend for restoration everywhere.

The situation in Syria, despite the uniquely fragile ethnic and sectarian balances within Syrian society, must be seen in this general context. The protest in Syria was initially democratic, with the protesters demanding the end of the one-party state born after the February 23, 1966 coup d'état of general Hafez al-Assad, which brought the neo-Ba'ath Party to the power. In reacting to the early democratic protests, the Syrian dominant elite chose the worst possible course: closure and repression.

The regime's repression has become increasingly harsher, in part because radical militants from abroad have penetrated the ranks of the protesters. So the civil protest was transmuted into armed clashes between government forces and rebels including the radical militants (jihadists) who de facto dominate the opposition, and the violence began to exceed all limits: Carnage, with the stench of war crimes. Ethnic and sectarian vectors came into play, with regional and global protagonists throwing support to groups sharing their own geopolitical interests. In this framework, Syria has become the soil of several proxy wars.

Arabs constitute 90 percent of Syria's population, and so the country is strictly linked to the Arab world. Kurds make up 9 percent, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians and Syrian Turkmen 1 percent. There is also a small Syrian Jewish community of a few dozen people. The present governmental elite is essentially comprised of Syrian confessional minorities: Alawites, including the Shi'a Muslims Imami/Twelvers and Ismailis/Seveners (16 percent), Christians (10 percent), Druzes (3 percent), and a myriad of sub-sects. These minorities, together with the moderate Sunnis of central Syria, likely total about 50 percent of the population and form a secular "minority coalition." Considering the history of fundamentalist massacres of minorities, it is very likely these minorities, without agreeing with the Assad regime's policies, out of self-defence are acting as a shield around the regime.

Act II -- Turning Towards Terror

The regime's troops repress the rebels, who are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalists from abroad (radical militants, jihadists, etc.). The rebels are divided and lack the necessary forces to topple Assad, and are moreover unable to enter into negotiations. Meanwhile, jihadist groups are amassing within Syrian territory, paralleling the situation in the tribal zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan around 1980, which gave birth to al Qaeda and the Taliban as a political movement.

Today, a stream of jihadists aligned with or linked directly to al Qaeda continues to flow into Syria from abroad. These obscurantist forces clearly intend to gain power and exclude the democratic and moderate opposition, and their power is advancing exponentially. The weight of these groups has become such that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Syria's opposition to resist efforts by extremist groups to co-opt their movement. Also, China says that Chinese Muslim separatists are fighting in Syria with rebels.

The New York Times reports: "Evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda."

That most of these groups are linked to al Qaeda is understood from their modus operandi ("they fight without fear"), by their names (e.g., Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al-Tawhid) and by symbols (heavily bearded, black flag, etc.).

In reality, all facts show that al Qaeda should be considered as a manifestation of the deepest soul of those Arab-Islamic societies incapable of recognizing democratic legitimacy. Al Qaeda is finding fertile new ground between Iraq and Syria, where it is perpetuating its Salafist message, mixed with perpetual terror. Thus, al Qaeda is "repatriating" Salafism to its place of origin. In fact, Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the ultra orthodox Hanbali jurist, ideologue of the Caliphate-without-Caliph and of Tekfirism (the ideology which considers any diversity in faith as "deviation" and apostasy) was born in Hararn in south-eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

Perceiving accurately the true nature of al Qaeda and the militants linked or aligned to it makes it possible to understand the fear of those Syrian minorities who risk being massacred, should the rebels win. Assad's regime is a dictatorship, but viewed perhaps as less vicious than what might come after. Given the foreign-supplied resources of the rebels and their ideological fanaticism, the motivation for Christian, Alawite, Kurd and other minorities to side with the establishment becomes clearer. This war and all the tragedies associated with it may persist for an indefinite period.

Act III -- Deus-ex-Machina?

Yet, it must also be remembered that the radicals aligned with al Qaeda are not the whole of the opposition; there are forces seeking civil rights and reforms in a responsible and realistic way. For Syria, there is no military solution; as stated by Volker Perthes, the unique solution remains a political one. Kofi Annan's resignation rendered the work of A. Ebrahimi (Annan's successor, now charged with the UN's Syria portfolio), harder; but Ebrahimi is a very serious diplomat and a diligent mediator who has the support and mandate of the UN -- and all people of good will. Ebrahimi is demanding a transitional government based on the Geneva Agreements to manage the situation.

With its complex and conflicting internal socio-ethnic currents, and external global players fighting proxy wars (witness the joint Russian/Chinese UN Security Council veto), any peace negotiations between the internal players alone seems impossible of success. Therefore, an international conference with the participation of all involved parties is needed:
America and Europe , China and Russia must all be included; Russia, by its historical role will have an important part in any negotiations. Present, too, should be India, which in a measured way stands against external interference, and even South Africa, which after the Libyan affair is becoming increasingly critical. There must also be the presence of Saudi Arabia as sponsor of the Syrian rebels, and Qatar, which seeks to build an alternative pipeline to Europe via the Mediterranean. Iraq, also, must be included. Turkey, disappointed by European indecision on its membership and yearning for new space and influence, is caught in a self-created Syrian trap and must be included.

The major supporters of the Syrian regime are China (which has a plan for Syria) and especially Russia, which defends the Geneva agreements. Russia and China have geopolitical concerns and fear that the extremists could upset their societies further (see Chechnya and Xinjiang). "In Moscow, secular authoritarian governments are seen as the sole realistic alternative to Islamic dominance," writes Ruslan Pukhov. "The active support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey's Islamist government for rebels in Syria only heightens suspicions in Russia about the Islamist nature of the current opposition in Syria and rebels throughout the Middle East."

Russia obviously does not like the arrival of Qatari gas to the European market where it has had a near-monopoly.

Yet, the regional power most involved in Syria for geopolitical, historical and cultural reasons is Iran. The United States as a global power and Iran as a regional power have areas of contention. A bilateral negotiation on Iran's nuclear project is of fundamental importance to the quest for a solution for Syria; but such a negotiation would necessarily expand to encompass regional problems, for without the central role of Iran, finding a solution for Syria and the other regional problems is impossible.

An unbalanced policy does not improve the situation. The U.S. should consider its long-term interests and Europe especially must focus on the fundamentalist belt which is tightening around it. Perpetuation of the corrosive Syrian situation could get out of hand and drag the entire region down, exacerbating insecurity and releasing the obscurantist forces linked to al Qaeda, threatening U.S. interests not only in the region but also in the world. The U.S is aware that any plan without guarantees for minorities could not have success. Yet all the international players must allow the Syrians to decide their own future; external interference cannot guarantee long-term stability.

The forces within Syrian society mirror generally the balances throughout the entire region. Jordan and Lebanon already are feeling the effects of the situation in Syria. In Turkey, about 25 percent of the population is Alawite, with sympathy for Syria. In the background there is the issue of the Kurds, who have obtained de facto autonomy in Syria and are pressing Turkey, a member of NATO. There are the same security problem within Iraq. All the elements of a colossal explosion are present, and direct negotiations between the U.S. and Iran should begin also for these reasons.

Meanwhile, the three vetoes by China and Russia of Security Council resolutions on Syria and the apparent iron will of all factions to continue the war serve to illustrate the difficulties confronting Ebrahimi. While the violence continues, diplomacy forges ahead, too. The framework for a solution could be based on (1) A Truce; (2) Negotiations; and (3) General elections under UN auspices, covering all aspects of a future Syria.