The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions achieved their primary aim in a matter of weeks; Libya and Yemen toppled their tyrants in under a year. The Syrian crisis, however, is already three years old, with no end in sight and up to 200,000 of its citizens dead.
Syria was always going to be different.
Among the region’s dictatorships, Syria was the most ruthless in extinguishing any opposition and its internal security services were notoriously thorough.
I confess I was surprised when the first, brave, Syrians took to the streets in peaceful protest, doubting their chances of unseating Bashar al-Assad by dissent alone.
Al-Assad has, to date, largely retained the support of a professional army equipped with air power and sophisticated weapons. Gadaffi, by way of contrast, had deliberately run down the Libyan Army for fear of a coup and had only security brigades run by close relatives and hired-in mercenaries to fight the rebels. Mubarak was undone when the Egyptian army announced its sympathy with the protestors and refused to fire on them. Syria’s troops have no such qualms.
Unlike the regimes which have already fallen to the ‘Arab Spring’, al-Assad has heavy-weight allies in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. China, India and Brazil have also declared their support. This made a Nato-led military intervention, such as the one which toppled friendless Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, much more problematic and therefore less likely from the outset.
Another significant factor which sets the Syrian crisis apart from its antecedents is the wholesale integration of international jihadist groups into the conflict. The West was alarmed by the post-revolutionary electoral successes of relatively moderate Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and it certainly did not foresee jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) benefitting from Libya’s revolution, plundering truckloads of sophisticated weaponry from Gadaffi’s abandoned stockpiles and sharing them with like-minded groups across the region.
The chaos that has engulfed Libya allows the jihadists free passage in and out of the country, and the US felt the danger of ‘blow-back’ most keenly in September 2012 when its Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three senior diplomats were murdered in Benghazi.
Now, the presence in Syria of jihadist groups such as al-Nusra – which has formally declared allegiance to al-Qaeda – and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) dominates the international community’s agenda. Last year, Jane’s Defence and Security Weekly estimated that more than 50 percent of the opposition forces were jihadists, many of them foreign.
External powers standing at the fringes of the region’s turmoil, have had time to analyse the unanticipated consequences of regime change and, perhaps, to consider how popular uprisings might be marshalled to their own causes. The fruits of this study can be seen in Ukraine where the West apparently encouraged an uprising against Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich – perhaps to divert Russia’s attention and military resources away from Syria – while the Russians took immediate advantage of the resultant security vacuum to effectively annexe the Crimea peninsula where its naval fleet is based.
The possibility of a Western military intervention in Syria remains on the table -and the removal of the Russian naval fleet to the Black Sea where it could be easily blockaded would certainly facilitate that – but most external parties would prefer a political settlement for a growing number of reasons.
First, because there is no credible alternative government. The Syrian opposition is increasingly divided, torn apart by infighting both politically and, more recently, militarily.
Second, all external parties whether for or against the regime, fear the expansion of al-Qaeda type groups. Here, they are on the same page as Assad himself who warned of this danger from the outset. If Assad goes, the jihadist groups will thrive in a post-regime-change security vacuum, as they have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. While some Gulf states argue that it would be better to topple Assad and then deal with the jihadists, the consensus is the opposite. Although they will be encouraged by the current, bloody, internecine battle between al-Nusra and ISIS, the West still fears a contiguous Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria, right at Israel’s doorstep… Israel’s security remains one of the most important drivers of Western foreign policy.
Third, regional and international polarization around the sectarian roots of the Syrian conflict raised real fears of escalation. The US, Europe, Turkey and the Gulf States coalesced around the Sunni opposition, and until recently seemed poised for a military intervention; meanwhile Russia was championing a Shi’a bloc comprising Assad’s Alawite minority, Iran and Hezbollah. The potential for war involving the major powers became obvious.
Intense diplomacy on the part of Russia, and America’s willingness to step back from the brink, resulted in surprise rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Russia was also instrumental in procuring Bashar al-Assad’s signature on the Chemical Weapons Convention agreement which paved the way for the latter’s partial rehabilitation and the Geneva 2 conference.
The path to peace began quite promisingly, with regime and opposition delegates sitting in the same room, but without the participation of regional superpower Iran, further progress is unlikely. Meanwhile Assad saw in the Geneva process an opportunity to enhance his own credibility and legitimacy on the international stage. He hired a European PR company and procured the services of glamorous former al-Jazeera presenter – Luna al-Shabel – to deal with the press.
In every ‘Arab Spring’ country I have visited, people express disappointment with the fruits of their revolution. Formerly strong, united, countries have been torn apart by sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions. Many in the Arab world now subscribe to a conspiracy theory that blames the West for opportunistically fomenting rebellion in order to achieve regime change without risking soldiers’ lives and financial investment. It is certainly remarkable that Israel’s most powerful Arab enemies – Iraq, Libya and Syria – have all disintegrated. Regionally, only Iran retains the capacity to menace Tel Aviv.
It is difficult to envisage a short-term ‘fix’ for the Syrian crisis. The democratic government of national unity the original protestors struggled for requires political experience and infrastructure which is currently absent but may come with time – after all, revolution is a process, not a destination.
Much remains uncertain. The fragile accord between Russia and the US, which has prevented international escalation, is now threatened by a cold-war style stand-off over Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as the cohesion of strong – albeit oppressive – central government melts away, Syria risks fragmenting into sectarian and ethnic pockets engaged in ongoing conflict with each other. A paradigm we first witnessed in Lebanon in 1975… a nightmare that lasted sixteen years.