There's no peaceful way of convincing Syria's Assad to step down PDF Print E-mail

No one, including the Russians, should delude themselves that Syrian President Bashar Assad is serious about finding a peaceful resolution of the bloodshed and massacres his regime is inflicting upon the country's civilian population.


Assad has absolutely no intention of doing anything that would end his repressive regime's stranglehold on power.


Any commitments he gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are simply the same kind of valueless commitment he gave the Arab League and then turned around and shelled the civilian population indiscriminately, killing hundreds. (Syria's opposition leaders insist they will not accept anything less than Assad stepping down.)


Russia's attempt to act as a peacekeeper is self-serving. Moscow has sold billions of dollars worth of military goods to Damascus. The special relationship resulted in the regime granting Russia use of Tartus as a naval base for its fleet - Russia's UN veto could lose it the Tartus facility once the Syrian opposition has power.


On another level, in its determination to re-emphasize that Russia remains a major world power, not to be ignored, Moscow opposes efforts by the United States and NATO allies to operate as final arbitrators in deciding important international issues, as done in Libya. This Russian view has become even more important when it involves Syria where Moscow is determined to protect its own national interests.


But Russia is not alone in seeing a pivotal role for itself in the Syrian imbroglio. Syria's northern neighbour, Turkey, is also playing a key role regarding what happens in Syria.


Appalled by the violence there, compounded by anti-regime Syrians fleeing into Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan has denounced President Assad's bloodletting against his own people.


While Turkish authorities have indicated they don't want to take unilateral action against the Assad regime and have called for international action to end the fighting, many believe the only way to stop the escalating violence is to accept that the use of force is the only alternative left to end Assad's rule.


In the Arab world, it's historically been called "power challenging." As one observer put it, "Knives and bullets are the final arbitrators" in deciding who ultimately wins or loses power.


This is what has kept the Assad family in power since the 1970s.


Unlike the situation in Tunisia and Egypt where those societies were not deeply divided by sectarian differences and popular mass demonstrations effectively overthrew authoritarian leaders, in Syria the struggle is between the majority Sunni population and a small privileged Alawite Shiite minority sect headed by the Assad family over four decades.


For many, the only practical option to topple Assad would involve an agreement by some countries to provide sufficient weapons to the Free Syrian Army to go on the offensive, eventually occupying territory, undermining support for Assad. Their success would be facilitated if outside countries, including Turkey, would agree on protecting safe sanctuaries within Syria once regime forces were driven out of certain areas.



Although backing Syrian insurgents could lead to a full-scale civil war, for many that's the only alternative if Assad's murderous attacks continue.


Anyone who thinks there's a way to convince President Assad to peacefully step down is avoiding reality. He and his inner circle, as well as the military elite - almost all Alawites - fully understand that retaining power means terrorizing opponents into submission.


But Assad has simply massacred far too many innocent people since the call for reforms began last year. The fact he and his brother have utilized terror tactics, including snipers killing innocent civilians and even having children tortured, can't be forgotten.


What he's now doing he learned from his deceased father, Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1970.


When opposition to his rule grew within the Sunni population of Hama, he had tanks surround that city in 1982 and then shelled the civilian population for days, reportedly killing upwards of 30,000 people.


Bashar Assad has utilized the same terror tactics on an ongoing basis over several months. During recent days his military surrounded the city of Homs, shelling the inhabitants indiscriminately, killing even small children.


What's now at stake is thus not solely a struggle for democracy but a showdown over what one ruling elite regards as its control of power being challenged by those who want to physically overthrow it.


Until now, the Alawite minority (about 10 per cent of the population) has prevailed because of the loyalty of the officer caste and Alawite-dominated security forces. Watching from the sidelines in this showdown are the small Christian and Druze communities and the business community.


While the current anti-Assad demonstrations and upsurge in fighting by the Free Syrian Army ostensibly have to do with ending a repressive regime, there's also an awareness what may follow the regime's overthrow may unleash totally unpredictable instability and violence, pitting rival religious and politically motivated groups against one another, as in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, with no one knowing where it will lead.


The prognosis for Syria's future is thus far from reassuring.


Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator who writes on Middle East issues.


The Edmonton Journal


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