A new Iraq is forming in Syria

Special to The Daily Star

Although Syria has for long been hailed as one of the Arab world’s most secular countries and the heart of Arab nationalism, its religious and ethnic diversity has always been more complex than this image suggests. The northeastern parts of Syria are inhabited mostly by Kurds and Assyrians, while the society’s allegedly secular character has reflected, in reality, an informal though complex arrangement between the various religious groups in the country. In recent decades, the arrangement has involved, in particular, the majority Sunni population and the Alawite minority.

The arrangement was first introduced by President Hafiz Assad. It allowed, in essence, a core of Alawite officers to control the country’s security, leaving management of the economy to a handful of Sunni, Christian and Druze officials and merchants. But the arrangement was by no means perfect and would have collapsed in the early 1980s had Assad not put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama. Memories of this event still loom heavily in the minds of many Syrians today.

The accession to power of President Bashar Assad in June 2000 threatened to dissolve this arrangement. Under the new leadership, the regime’s main props narrowed to a clique centered on the president, his immediate family members and close friends. If the old arrangement was imperfect, its dissolution at the hands of the “new guard” was even worse. For the ruling elite did not offer any new vision for Syria’s future. Transparency, reform, modernization and development were words often used by Assad and his advisers, but, for the most part, they remained just that: words. No programs, policies or action plans were offered.

As later developments would show, this fact seemed to denote not only a lack of interest in such matters on the art of the new guard, but, more importantly, a lack of real understanding of the basics of governance and of the nature of the global geopolitical changes that took place following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria’s old patron. As a result, the history of the last five years has been characterized by endemic corruption, adventurism and serious miscalculations paving the way for the regime’s current international isolation.

Indeed, under the current regime, Syria seems to be heading toward disaster, a point recently highlighted by Assad’s petulant defiance of the international community and his refusal to cooperate with the ongoing UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But this is not surprising: a witness seems to have already implicated the president’s brother and brother-in-law, and this fact could well point the finger at the very top of Syria’s leadership.

It is safe to say, therefore, that in these circumstances, the Syrian regime is no longer really viable, and that a search for an alternative is now not only legitimate, but mandatory as well in order to preserve regional stability and prevent the creation of another haven for jihadists and terrorists.

However, and since no one can rationally advocate recourse to another militaristic venture in the region, the downfall of the Syrian regime is better induced through a combination of diplomatic pressures, targeted economic sanctions and various activities and gestures meant to empower the internal opposition in the country and perhaps also the growing disaffection within the middle ranks of the army.

On the other hand, now that Syria’s leadership seems to have opted for a confrontation with the international community, a case for the use of force against the regime can no longer be completely ruled out. In fact, the latest UN Security Council resolution on Syria, Resolution 1636, was passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for forceful measures.

While we should all hope not to witness the making of another Iraq, the Bush administration needs to continue to follow a multilateral approach and coordinate its moves with France, Europe and the Security Council. Unilateral moves will only stoke anti-American sentiment, a development that Assad and his entourage seem to be counting on in order to shore themselves up and focus the Syrian people’s attention away from the fact that the regime is ultimately responsible for the current crisis threatening the stability, if not the viability, of the country.