Saturday, September 3, 2011

Syria And The Domestic Factor

By Walid Choucair

Many people are wagering that the stance by foreign countries on the situation in Syria could evolve rapidly, despite the prevailing belief that there will be no sudden or rapid change in events there, domestically, as seen by uprisings in other Arab countries.
In terms of the domestic situation, the only surprising thing is the determination by the protestors and the opposition to continue demonstrating and taking to the streets, despite the death that awaits them. There is also the determination of the Syrian regime, to continue its crackdown and use of bullets and all forms of violence in its campaign to “confront armed and terrorist gangs.” Those who are demanding the fall of the regime are demonstrating an ability to resort to the street, despite the painful and bloody campaign by security bodies, the army and militias. When these militias complete a military operation in a given town, city or governorate, they soon return to the location as a result of people taking to the street, with an escalation in their tone and the slogans they chant against the head of the regime. This has happened on many occasions in Deraa, Hama, Homs and most areas, as more deaths are recorded, and the number of arrests rise. If this determination by both sides in the crisis demonstrates anything, it is that neither side is able to settle things in the foreseeable future.

The inability to settle things by either side has prompted several foreign actors to search for ways out of the crisis that respect the sensitivity of the Syrian people to any type of foreign intervention, while maintaining foreign pressure on this regime. Perhaps the growing isolation of Damascus will lead other elements of Syrian society and official institutions to demand change, so that the balance of power shifts in the direction of the opposition.

Up to now, the foreign intervention on the side of the regime has been more effective than that in favor of the opposition. The pressure of sanctions by Washington and the European Union on the regime has been offset by measures that involve assistance offered by Iran. This has prompted countries such as Turkey to try and intercede with Tehran, in a bid to get it to pressure its ally Syria to halt the crackdown and accelerate reform moves. This is in order to avoid a larger international consensus on tougher sanctions on Syria, which could pave the way for foreign intervention that would exacerbate the regional and international struggle over the country. Perhaps this has prompted Iranian officials, over the last two weeks, to talk about the need for reform and the importance of listening to the people’s demands. Some people have even imagined that the regional equation has changed – instead of demands that Damascus abandon its relationship with Iran, as in recent years, the developments in the external stance on Syria are paving the way for Iran to abandon the Syrian regime, if it continues to confront the opposition in a way that leaves it twisting in the wind. This will threaten Iran’s interests in the Middle East and prompt it to search for alternatives, such as the reported Iranian contacts with the Syrian opposition. However, such a scenario is unlikely to play out at present, meaning that foreign intervention is still supporting the Syrian regime, due to its ability to overcome sanctions by relying on Iranian assistance and the situation in Lebanon and Iraq.

But this raises another problem: the degree to which Beirut and Baghdad can withstand international pressure to apply international sanctions, if adopted by the United Nations. This will turn Iraq and Lebanon into arenas of escalating the struggle between Iran and the international community, because of the struggle over Syria. Both Lebanon and Iraq are subject to Iranian influence, in one way or another, and this will put each in a more difficult situation than they face today, in terms of the domestic contradictions and deep divisions with regard to the external options available to both countries.

In light of the very complicated external situation, the Syrian domestic situation appears to be the chief factor that will prompt outside countries to make up their minds, and both the regime and the opposition are aware of this.

The regime is trying to use a crackdown to settle matters, paying no heed to any foreign reactions and the possibility of seeing an international front take shape. The opposition, meanwhile, is seeking to unite its ranks and bring in more political and social groups to its side, after these elements have remained hesitant about, or frightened by, such a move. The declaration by the opposition inside the country, to form a “national transitional council,” and the naming of some figures to form such a body, is an attempt to establish a united political group that can address the outside world and expand the base of the opposition, which could allow it to keep pace with expected foreign developments. An early sign of the future stance by the opposition is that the nucleus of the transitional council has declared its commitment to agreements that have been conducted with the outside world.

This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 02/09/2011

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