It took more than 1,500 deaths to push the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Syrian government`s violent crackdown on civilians. Syrians took to the streets on March 15 calling for a democratic government. After failing to persuade protesters with the promise of reform, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is now brutally cracking down on demonstrators.
In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, a Middle East expert, Dr Paul J Sullivan, discusses the future of Syria and the role India can play.
Dr Paul J Sullivan teaches at Georgetown University in Washington and at National Defence University.
Kamna: The global outrage, sanctions as well as international pressure have failed to stop the Syrian government from violently cracking down on dissents. What is the difficulty in stopping the Syrian regime from using brutal force?
Dr Sullivan: The Syrian government has a long history of brutally cracking down on dissent. Hafez Al Assad, the father of Bashar, the present President of Syria, killed a lot more of his people in the early 1980s, especially in a place called Hama. He remained in power. Hama has also witnessed brutality recently. However, this time the dissent and anger of the people have spread far beyond Hama and the son is having far more difficulty than the father.
One of the main reasons for the brutality is the regime, and its cronies and hangers-on`s desire to stay in power. And with that power comes wealth and prestige. But recent actions of the Syrian regime have ruined that prestige, weakened that power, and have brought very tight economic and financial sanctions on the country, especially directed toward some of the elite.
Given that the regime is still capable of using extreme force and does not seem to be pushed to the economic and financial wall just yet, it is clear that they stashed away a mountain of money or other financial instrument in the event that they might need. It seems also logical in this fog of war and deceit on the part of many parties involved that Iran and Hezbollah are giving a hand to the Syrian regime -- although hard proof of this is difficult to find. Often in the fog of war there is sometimes also the fog of hidden finance and other support -- and this is not just in Syria`s case. Iran and Hezbollah fear the loss of their supporters in Damascus.
The leadership in Syria belongs to a minority within Syria of Alawite, who are a branch of the Shia. Iran supports them. Syria has lent its support for some Iranian actions. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah channels of support have been known for a very long time. Hence, it seems obviously to the benefit of Hezbollah and Iran to support the present regime.
The majority Sunni in Syria would be less likely to support the Shia Hezbollah and Shia Iran.
Kamna: Can regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, be of more help in influencing the Syrian government’s actions?
Dr Sullivan: Saudi Arabia recently withdrew its ambassador from Damascus. Other Sunni leaders in the Gulf states, significant investors and former supporters of the Syrian regime are walking away from it. When the King of Saudi Arabia asks Bashar Al Assad to "stop the killing machine" this is a very big blow to Assad. Some of the biggest investors in Syria have been from the GCC, even if the GCC states which are Sunni are in increasing tensions with Shia Iran.
The EU, one of Syria`s biggest trading partners and some of its member states have also extended sanctions on Syria. The US influence on Syria through these methods is small given that there is only a very small amount of trade and investment between the two countries. There is really not much the US could do other than try to cut even that small amount and pressure others to cut trade and other relations with the Syrian regime. But these financial and economic instruments take time to bite. And they often bite the wrong people, such as the poor and most vulnerable.
Even if the US asks the Syrian regime to step down there might not be the reaction they expect. Our relations with Syria are not the type that would give the US much leverage on the Syrian leadership. The countries that really need to pressure the situation are to be found in the region, especially in the Sunni Gulf states. The US also cannot pressure Iran or Hezbollah much to stop their support of the Syrian regime given that our relations with those two are difficult to say the least. The US also cannot put much pressure on the Russians due to there being a Russian Naval facility in Syria. Although it does seem that Russia is starting to get the picture that it could be in their advantage to start putting pressure for the removal of the regime. China could also put on pressure, but they are always more subtle about these things than the Americans.
Turkey, Syria`s neighbour, could be a very big player in all of this given its proximity and military and economic power. Not that it would use this power on Syria, especially the military one, nor would I recommend that, but the mere threat could make a difference. If Turkey`s borders seemed threatened and its Kurdish minority is stirred up by events in Syria, then Turkey may move troops closer to the border as it did during the Ocalan crisis a few years ago. Turkey`s foreign minister was sent to Damascus to deliver a stern warning to stop the killing the other day. So far that is not happening. The Arab League will likely not do much.
Another part of the problem of dealing with Syria is that there are so many other issues to deal with in the region. The countries and people who usually handle such complex issues are not focused enough on the Syrian situation. If it were just Syria in trouble and the situations in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and others that are rumbling were the same as 2009, then more effort would be put toward resolving the Syrian crisis.
Kamna: Is Syria closer to collapse? If yes, what would be its ramifications for the region?
Dr Sullivan: It is hard to tell whether the regime is close to collapse. It is also not clear that any rapid collapse would be good for Syria or for the region. Syria is an important player in many important issues in the region. If there is a vacuum without any clear alternative leadership developed, Syria could go into chaos. It could also begin a fall into ethnic and sectarian divides, such as what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This instability could affect Lebanon, Jordan, parts of Turkey, parts of Iraq, Iran, and, ultimately, Israel. Some of the people in Syria may start to more fully direct their anger at Israel in the midst of the ensuing chaos, especially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Syria.
Kamna: Is Syria’s return to the status quo possible? If not, what are the possible scenarios?
Dr Sullivan: It is unlikely that there could be a return to the status quo. Too much blood has been shed. Too much hatred developed. Too much has been unleashed in the country and even elsewhere. If there is to be any reconciliation, then the political and economic systems have to be completely opened up to all groups and all people in Syria. But the opposition seems fractured and even the present government seems to be showing sign of some dissent within its edges, not in its core. We will see how that works out.
The smell of vendetta is in the air in many places of Syria. Peace will likely not come to Syria any time soon. This has gone on for too long and an eye for an eye could follow any collapse or stepping down of the present leadership. Also, there will still be many from the present leadership who will remain even after Assad leaves. There will also be many Alawite who will feel threatened if the power structures change.
This is a very complex and dangerous situation indeed.
Kamna: Hillary Clinton wants India to take action against Syria. Do you think Asia`s powerhouse should take on more assertive role in the world?
Dr Sullivan: India is a rising global power at the world stage and this situation could be a defining moment. India could use its growing power for good in the world. I can only wonder what one of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, would have done knowing of the slaughter in the streets and villages of Syria.