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Opinion: Syria’s people deserve the chance to assert themselves

The Russian and American positions would not survive even the most cursory examination
Opinion: Syria’s people deserve the chance to assert themselves

By: Amir Taheri


When talking of Syria, Russian diplomats peddle the old cliché of “non-intervention in the affairs of a sovereign country.”


For their part, the Americans are trying to change the narrative from a civil war that has claimed over 150,000 lives to one about identifying Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons.


The Russian and American positions would not survive even the most cursory examination.


More than a dozen nations, including Russia, have been intervening in Syria for years and continue to do so. Also, Syria’s “internal affairs” are affecting the rest of the world, notably by producing the largest number of refugees the world has seen since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. According to UN estimates almost two million Syrians refugees are already in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. Syrian “boat people” are appearing in the Mediterranean fleeing to Europe, at times with tragic results. Caught inside Syria, some 4.5 million “displaced persons” are refugees in waiting.


In a sense, Syria has ceased to be a nation-state in the normal sense of the term. The administrative network has collapsed or been transformed into a mechanism for repression. The Ba’athist regime has shrunk into one faction in a civil war. Deputy Premier Qadri Jamil admits that the war has led to stalemate and that large chunks of territory are under rebel control.


US talk about “eliminating chemical weapons” is a red herring. Under the Washington-Moscow deal, inspectors are only allowed to visit sites “declared” by Bashar Al-Assad’s faction. They have neither the authority nor the means to identify suspected undeclared sites.


If Russians are right about “non-intervention,” why are they promoting a second Geneva Conference precisely aimed at interfering in Syria’s domestic affairs?


And if Americans are right that the issue is chemical weapons, why are they promoting a vast agenda that also includes flirting with Iran’s mullahs?


In its current shape, the Geneva conference, if it does take place, is no more than a cynical ploy by Washington and Moscow to pretend that they are “doing something” about what is the most tragic situation in the world today.


The international community, including Russia and the US, has every interest in taking the Syrian tragedy more seriously.


As always, refugee camps—hell-holes where the wretched of the earth are caught in a spiral of misery and anger—become recruiting grounds for merchants of violence. In these metaphorical swamps mosquitoes of terror breed by the thousands.


China, too, would be wise to take the issue more seriously at a time its Muslim minority is showing fresh signs of restiveness.


By backing Assad, Russia has further blackened its image among Muslims across the globe, an image already tarnished by decades of brutal repression in the Caucasus, notably Chechnya.


As for Obama’s cynical maneuvers, their net effect is that the US now has no friends in Syria on either side of the divide.


It took the world, especially the neighbors of Afghanistan, almost 30 years to absorb the consequences of the refugee explosion produced by the Soviet invasion. As an “ungoverned space” Afghanistan provided bases for dozens of terror groups, mainly against Russia, the US, and China.


This time, Europe, too, would be wise to worry.


According to estimates some 3,000 citizens of the European Union are involved in the Syrian war alongside different factions, including the Assad clan. A Somalia-type “ungoverned space” on the Mediterranean would not be good news for Europe.


The long-term impact of the Syrian refugee flood on Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan is hard to gauge. Iraq is in even greater danger because the de facto secession of Syria’s Kurds could reignite dreams of an independent Kurdistan, with this issue set to be discussed at a pan-Kurdish conference in Erbil next month. The outcome of the Syrian crisis could be a redrawing of the region’s map.


In other words, the Syrian civil war is an international issue. Tinkering with it would amount to a dereliction of duty by the United Nations.


The Syrian crisis has three facets.


The first is the collapse of the military-security based state structures that have been in place since the 1960s. Regardless of the outcome of the war, these structures cannot be salvaged. Thus, the first issue is about how to help Syria create new state structures, and regain its independence.


The second facet concerns the internal tensions among the rebel factions. The anti-Assad groups have little interest in going to Geneva. The proposed conference is not really about Syria. It is designed to foster the illusion that Obama is still engaged with the world while allowing Russia to pose as a rising power.


The third facet is, perhaps, the most important.


It concerns finding ways and means of enabling the mass of Syrians, now mostly voiceless victims of a tragedy beyond their control, to re-enter the political arena and gain a decisive say in shaping the future. The Syrian uprising was the only genuinely popular revolt in the so-called “Arab Spring.” It cut across ethnic and sectarian divides and, initially at least, espoused strong democratic aspirations.


With the uprising degenerating into a civil war that popular energy has been stifled. Ordinary people are willing and able to take risks even with their lives through civil disobedience and non-violent struggle. But not everyone is capable of picking up a gun or triggering a car bomb. The ruthless repression unleashed by Assad succeeded in producing a violent backlash in which armed struggle became the mantra.


However, it is wrong to suggest that the only way to see the back of Assad is through the barrel of a gun.


Syria needs a political transition in which the mass of the people are helped to assert themselves as arbiters of the nation’s future.


Everyone in the international community, including the cynical leaders of Washington and Moscow, have an interest in trying to make that possible.


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