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Syria: from ethnic cleansing to enclave partitions?
Less than a week ago, ...

22 June   |   2012   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... at a colloquium entitled Violence in Syria and the Assad Regime organised by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) think tank in Washington DC, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain addressed a group of analysts and interns about President Bashar Al-Assad's indiscriminate use of violence against the Syrian population. During his talk, the Senator excoriated the non-interventionist approach of the Obama administration to the conflict in Syria and called upon the USA to assist the opposition groups more directly with logistics and organisational skills.

Following his speech, four key panellists discussed those viewpoints. In their own statements as well as in the QandA session, they pondered over the creation of safe havens that might inevitably lead to mission creep and thus entangle a war-weary America further into the Syrian debacle. They surmised that such heightened involvement could also lead to unintended military consequences and end up creating even uglier and more unpredictable scenarios. They discussed the fate of the chemical and biological weapons stocked by the military authorities in depots near Homs and Hama. They speculated about the increasing lethal force of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) operations when compared with the hopelessness of the Syrian National Council (SNC) as an umbrella opposition body. The panellists then elaborated on the seeming inaction of the US Administration toward the mounting Syrian deaths and on the disparity between General Martin Dempsey's statement as Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs on 7th June that he does not know what Syrian scenario to opt for when President Obama himself had stated on 18 August 2011 that President Assad must step down.

However, I was struck by three less recycled themes that those top-notch analysts addressed on the panel:

  • They were of the opinion that the Kofi Anan Plan was dead and that none of its six points had been properly implemented to date. Not only so, they also agreed that the plan was in fact stillborn, and one analyst suggested ruefully that it had simply rolled back the teeth of the earlier plan of the League of Arab States and had wasted precious weeks which the Syrian war machinery had seized in order to pummel different town and villages.
  • Whilst they disagreed on whether Syria is already in a state of civil war (something that Donatella Rivera, a crisis situation expert with Amnesty International, denied on 8th June, as did Hanin Ghaddar, Managing Editor of Now Lebanon in her recent op-ed entitled The fabrication of civil war in Syria), they averred that the spectre of civil war served the purposes of the Assad regime in that it deterred the West from any robust intervention. Nonetheless, according to the panellist Brian Fishman, Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Research Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, jihadi elements such as the new and ostensibly legitimate Jabhat al Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham had begun operating in the country.
  • Perhaps the boldest postulation by those panellists - at least for a Western readership - was that President Assad holds two plans up his sleeve. Plan A pre-supposes he will manage to browbeat the protestors into submission, regain full control of Syria and in so doing rescue his totalitarian regime. However, in the event that this plan failed, the Assad regime would then default to Plan B. This is more sinister in that it envisages the partition of the country and the creation of enclaves along the coastal areas and mountainous regions of Latakia as well as in central parts of Syria. In the opinion of one panellist, this is why key locations such as Haffe, Talbisseh, Rastan, Houle, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Sahl el-Ghab area are being pounded repeatedly. The regime and its acolytes are trying to drive Sunnis away from those centres toward the east of the Orontes River - or modern-day Nahr al-Asi. (To date, for instance, 600,000 Sunnis have reportedly fled Homs). Once cleansed of Sunnis, the Alawites would inhabit those segregated areas and effectively lead to a Syria that becomes partitioned into enclaves or worse cantons.

I have serious misgivings about the feasibility of such a plan and question whether the major powers would indeed allow it to happen irrespective of its prevalence or popularity in some quarters. After all, a wholesale fragmentation of Syria would neither be tenable politically nor sustainable demographically and could well lead to a domino tumble in a region whose boundaries are largely artificial. Such an outcome is inimical with both American and

In my opinion, the present Syrian imbroglio was best described by Peter Harling, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon Project Director at International Crisis Group, In an interview with Voice of America on 17th June, he defined the standoff in those lucid terms: "Those who support the opposition believe that over time it can turn the tables against the regime on the ground, and those who support the regime believe that it can defeat this uprising. All parties pay lip service to the cease-fire, to a political solution, to the Kofi Annan mission, while fundamentally I think wanting to win the battle on the ground."

I concur with Harling that further international conferences per se will not untangle this logjam but will simply exact more deaths and wreak further mayhem. It is a firm and concerted response by the international community alone that will break this standoff. However, such a response will not be for altruistic reasons and is predicated on a tangible symmetry of forces on the ground coupled with a political opposition that becomes a viable, cohesive and coherent body not prone to manipulation or egocentrism. This combination of endogenous and exogenous elements joining forces might well succeed in galvanising the international community to coerce the Assad regime into relinquishing its hold on power.

However, the dividing line between activism as a protest movement and the maximisation of such activism within clear political structures remains yawningly wide today. So I dread that the new political enchiridion is still somewhat far from being written for Syria.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2012   |   22 June


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