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Damascus today: Sarajevo, 1914? July 18, 2012

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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The killing, in Damascus today, of at least three powerful members of the Baathist regime in Syria, will almost certainly plunge that whole country– and quite likely also much of the rest of the Greater Middle East– into a maelstrom of inter-group violence far worse than any it has seen until now.

Ninety-eight years ago, on June 28, 1914, a small group of Serbian nationalists executed a similar kind of violent coup, killing the presumptive heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, during an official visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Though the original assassination plan was botched, conspirator Gavrilo Princip was able to shoot the Archduke and his wife dead a short while later.

The process of political/diplomatic breakdown thereby set in process unspooled with amazing speed– in a context in which major European powers had already, for some years, been arming and escalating tension and distrust among themselves. Within just one month, World War I had erupted– a confrontation that, though centered in Europe, soon engulfed the whole world, leaving tens of millions dead and tens of millions more displaced, dishonored, starving, and extremely vulnerable to disease.

The killing of President Asad’s powerful brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, along with Syria’s ministers of defense and interior, certainly escalates the internal tensions and the stakes of the conflict within Syria, a country of 19 million souls in which sectarian tensions and inter-sect violence have already been rising to a high degree over the past 16 months.

Each side to the fierce political battle underway in Syria today accuses the other of having (a) fomented the sectarianism, and (b) launched and escalated the violence; and there is considerable substance to these accusations on both sides. Assad, Shawkat, and most of the important figures in the regime’s security apparatus are members of the country’s Alawite Muslim minority. The Alawites, who are a branch of Shiism, make up around 12% of the country’s population. The opposition forces are almost completely dominated by Sunni Islamist movements. The Sunnis make up around 75% of the country’s Arab population. (The remainder are, mainly, Christians. The country also has sizeable populations of non-Arabs, including Kurds, Armenians, and Turkoman; and a very large and vulnerable population of stateless Palestinians.)

Today’s killings in Damascus mark the death-knell for the diplomatic initiative that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pursuing. He has, extremely laudably, been trying to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria– one that would include all the major political forces inside the country, along with concerned and influential other governments.

Among Syrians, there have been raucous sounds of jubilation among the oppositionists in exile, and some signs of jubilation among in-country oppositionists– though it is currently extremely hard to get any news at all out of the country. Until now, there has been no word from President Asad. The Reuters report linked to above said that the armed forces chief of staff, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, “quickly took over as defense minister to avoid giving any impression of official paralysis.”

Back in spring 2011, Mona Yacoubian, then an analyst with the (rather poorly named) U.S. Institute of Peace, laid out a plan for “controlled regime change” in Syria. Though she noted that this would not necessarily be an easy feat to achieve, she did nonetheless judge it to be achievable. I questioned her judgment on this point at the time. The events of the intervening 15 months have clearly brought home the lesson (that was clear to me back at the moment she offered her plan) that an action as deepseated and momentous as “regime change” cannot be “controlled”, unless there is clear buy-in to the process from the existing status-quo power— as there was, for example, from the National Party in South Africa in 1992; and as Hillary Clinton is (laudably) hoping to achieve from the Burmese junta today.

A regime that is subjected to the kinds of attacks that Damascus has seen today will have its back to the wall, and that hears from its opponents only the most gruesome and oft-repeated threats of what will happen to its leaders and supporters once they are vanquished, can certainly be expected to retaliate with great violence. The violence inside Syria will get worse; and there will almost certainly be a huge increase in calls for western military intervention…

Meantime, in Israel, here is what the rabidly rightwing analyst Barry Rubin had to say yesterday about the whole phenomenon of the Arab Spring:

“Every Arabic-speaking country is likely to be wracked with internal violence, conflict, disorder and slow socio-economic progress for years, even decades, to come… “

“the big Middle East conflict of the future is not the Arab-Israeli but the Sunni-Shia one… [A] series of conflicts have broken out all along the Sunni-Shia borderland as the two blocs vie for control of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain.

In addition, the Syrian civil war is wrecking that country and will continue to paralyze it for some time to come. When the dust settles, any new government is going to have to take a while to manage the wreckage, handle the quarreling, diverse ethnic-religious groups, and rebuild its military…”

And that was yesterday!

Of course, all this while– as throughout the whole of the past 44 years– Israel’s colonial land-grab of the land and resources of Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Golan has continued. As has its acquisition of ever more capable and lethal military powers… As has its maintenance of Gaza as an extremely tightly policed open-air-prison for 1.6 million people.

The violence in Syria does not just, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today, threaten to “spin out of control”. It also threatens to draw powers from near and far into a conflict of still unimaginable proportions and extent. (And the fact that the U.S. has a presidential election this year makes the geopolitics of “controlling” this process much harder to plan.) I imagine that there are plenty of members of Israel’s current rightwing and expansionist elite who are hoping and planning that, as this conflict winds down– whatever its eventual dimensions– their command over the entire territory of the mashreq (the Arab East) will be far stronger than it is today.

For them, the whole “Iran threat” that their acolytes have hyped to such great effect in the west and much of the rest of the (western dominated) “international community” has always been something of a sideshow… a way, mainly, to divert attention from the colonialist facts they’ve been busy creating on the ground in the West Bank for the whole of the past 44 years. In regional political terms, Syria was always one of their main targets. It was clearly identified as such in the “Clean Break” document of 1996. And now, they don’t even have to lift a finger of their own, in order to see the country being torn apart… with the help of, it has to be said, many cynical sectarian forces from outside– including from those notably anti-democratic regimes, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…

Can the now-threatening collapse into a tsunami of sectarian violence that may well engulf the whole Middle East be prevented? Yes, it can, if enough people inside and outside the region, seeing both the human tragedy and the geopolitical instability that would ensue, can act together to use all the available tools of diplomacy and human reasonableness that will be needed to avert it.

It is, certainly, harder to see how it can be done in a year when that 5% of humanity who happen to be U.S. citizens are caught up in their (our) own periodic form of money-driven insanity known as a presidential election. But the good of the Syrian people– all of the Syrian people– must be the first priority. Determining what that is, and who can legitimately represent the aspirations of the country’s people is, of course, a central part of the current conundrum. Saving Syria’s people– and the people of the broader region– from the kind of sectarian breakdown and violence that we all saw occurring in Iraq over the past seven years… and that I had lived through, first hand, when I was in Lebanon in the late 1970s.. must be the top priority. That requires– now, as always– negotiations, including negotiations that draw in and involve the leaders on all sides who have committed some terrible deeds. There are pitifully few angels or innocents in Syria; and none of them are at head of either the current regime, or the opposition. But they are the ones who must be drawn into the negotiation.

That, it seems to me, is the only alternative to a 1914-type explosion of all-out war. And war, remember, inflicts severe harm on everyone who happens to live in the war-zone, with the most vulnerable members of society being (as we have seen in Iraq, and elsewhere) those who suffer the most. From that perspective, avoiding war is a supreme priority for all those concerned with the human rights of actual living people.

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Update, 9:07 pm:

David Ignatius, as well informed as ever, writes this:

The CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile.