Another year with Bashar al-Assad

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

The Syrian conflict has come to encapsulate contemporary international politics and the problems facing the world community.

The year 2013 began much like 2012 – with news of fighting in Syria and predictions that the tide is about to turn in the country’s protracted civil war. However, confidence that the dictator’s days are numbered is not as strong as it was a year ago.

We were told that the war had reached a turning point at least three times in 2012. Some high-ranking officials defected to the opposition, others were killed in explosions in Damascus. The rebels claimed to be in control of the bulk of the country and leading Western powers recognized the opposition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But all this didn’t lead to much.

Moreover, in early January 2013 Bashar al-Assad delivered a defiant speech, making it clear that he is not about to surrender.

The world’s attention is focused on Syria for reasons beyond its ongoing civil war. The Syrian conflict has come to encapsulate contemporary international politics and the problems facing the world community.

First, the authoritarian regimes that have been in power for decades are in steep decline. Societies are no longer willing to acquiesce to repression and persecution even for the sake of development and a decent quality of life (what the new governments could offer is unclear).

This was inevitable, and so it is strange to hear people in Russia claim that the changes roiling the Middle East were provoked by outside forces. Democracy is indeed spreading through the region, though not at all with results the West had expected.

Secondly, the conflict in Syria is drawn along sectarian lines. The Syrian crisis began as a protest against a stagnant autocracy and for democracy, but soon morphed into a confrontation between the ruling Shia minority (supported by other ethnic minorities, who fear change even though they don’t like the status quo) and the disenfranchised Sunni majority. Syria has become the first battleground of a great Middle Eastern feud, which began in the 1970s with the Shia-led Iranian revolution and has dominated the regional politics over the past decade.

The opposing camps refuse to budge because there can be no compromise in a religious struggle for survival. Syria is the second great conflict, after Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, in which a medieval conception of identity is becoming the dominant force, fanning the flames of civil strife. Worse still, Syria is unlikely to be the last example of this kind of war.

Thirdly, Syria is caught up in a regional rivalry with sectarian overtones. Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for religious, geopolitical, energy-related and ethnic dominance in the region. They have allies both inside and outside Syria, and judging by the way the conflict is progressing the balance of power is roughly equal.

Lastly, great powers are vying not so much for their presence and interests as for their worldview. This explains Moscow’s inflexibility, which many ascribe to mere commercial interests or an affinity for troglodytic dictators. Elements of both are likely at play, but Russia’s true motivation lies elsewhere. Russia sees Syria as the last chance to prevent the intervention in Libya from becoming a precedent for how the local conflicts are resolved.

In Libya, external forces sided with the “right” side in the internecine conflict and used all the means available, including direct military intervention, to ensure their victory. Therefore, the Kremlin’s uncompromising stance is only indirectly related to Middle Eastern or Syrian affairs: fundamentally, it is about the principles governing international relations.

This is why the outcome of the Syrian war is so consequential for global politics. The complex web of influences at play in Syria makes it difficult to predict how events will unfold. The players have adopted their strategies and placed their bets – now they are just hoping to hit the jackpot. 

There can be no simple solution to the complex problems in Syria, and Moscow has been saying so from the very beginning of the conflict. If Assad’s resignation could end the conflict, as the West insists, he would have stepped down long ago. But since this is not the case, there is a chance that Assad will still be in power as we ring in 2014.

First published in Ria Novosti.

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