The Endgame in Syria is Near


By Saeed Qureshi

The Syrian civil war between the incumbent besieged Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad and the rebel forces inter-alia, the Syrian Liberation Army, the Syrian free army and other anti regime fighting forces might be drawing to a close. In 21 months (since March 2011) this war has taken a toll of some 50000 Syrians on both the sides.

Unfortunately the Syrian president did not learn a lesson from the tragic and humiliating end of the Libyan president Col Qaddafi. Bashar has used the full military might of the state to crush and kill the anti government fighters and protesting civilians but has not been able to subdue them. Now the tide is turning in favor the rebel forces reported to be making gains, seizing military bases and fighting for control of suburbs around the capital, Damascus.

Syria is under severe economic sanctions from the United States and several European countries. Also the United States, Britain, France and at least five other major nations have expelled senior Syrian diplomats. There have been high profile defections that seem to have paralyzed the smooth and effective functioning of the state especially the military and the police. On 28 December two air force generals and 3 state TV journalists defected to Turkey. Last week, Syria’s military police chief Major General Abdelaziz al-Sallal defected, becoming the highest ranking military defector to defect, after the defection of the Chemical Weapons department’s head, Major General Adnan Sillue.

There is clear-cut writing on the wall that Bashar Assad will have to relinquish power sooner than later. It is doubtful that the peace mission undertaken by the Algerian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to draw Syrian officials and rebels into negotiations and to revive a plan for a transitional government and elections would make any headway.

Now Russias foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says after meeting Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdada in Moscow that his country endorsed the peace plan originally crafted in the summer, and that Syrians on both sides of the 21-month conflict needed to engage in a dialogue. It should be recalled that the resolutions tabled in the Security Council to end the violence In Syria were vetoed by Russia and China in emboldening Bashar Al Assad regime to keep on killing his people. Had these two countries agreed then there could have been a smooth transition to the new set-up with a possible safe passage for Bashar.

The war in Syria is going to take an extremely horrendous sectarian form as those fighting against the minority Shia Alawite regime would hunt down the Syrian soldiers and common Shia population with vengeance.

In Iraq where the Sunni-shia sectarian animosity is equally strong, the sectarian war was averted because of the presence of the American forces. Moreover Saddam Hussain went into hiding and thus a substitute government was put in place that is still functional. The government of Al-Maliki controlled the sectarian strife and formed a democratic government. In Libya it was not sectarian war but a national movement to oust a ruthless tyrant. That change came as a part of the Arab springs sweeping across the Middle East.

Iran is hard-pressed because of backbreaking sanctions and the isolation spun around her by the United States and the west European countries. Iran, therefore, cannot come all out to save the sinking Bashar regime. Even Hezbollah fighters and Palestinian refugees cannot help sustain the tottering Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad.

One shudders to imagine what would happen to the minority Shia population that has been in power for over forty years now and has kept the majority Sunnis at bay by inflicting unspeakable barbarities and spine-chilling afflictions on them.

During his barbaric rule of 30 years, Hafiz al Assad the father of the incumbent Syrian president ordered at least six massacres in which several thousand Syrians were killed. One such gruesome massacre known as scorched earth operation was carried out in Hama village in February 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. In that military onslaught, roughly 20000 residents perished, their houses bulldozed and the ground leveled off.

During the ongoing civil war, countless Syrians have fled the country and taken refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Their return to homes and resettlement would be a gigantic challenge for the new establishment that would supersede the Alawite regime.

Hopefully the anti- government factions that are battling the official troops would agree on such measures that would usher Syrian into an era of democracy, respect for human rights, open society, right to vote and travel, and national reconciliation.

But if the sectarian war erupts, it would push Syria into another spell of gruesome infighting entailing genocide of the Shia community. That frightening situation must be stopped and any new government that succeeds the Bashar regime should take the sectarian harmony as the foremost and the most urgent undertaking that any other issue. One cannot foretell what could be the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

The writer is a senior journalist and a former diplomat.

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