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Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011

Time is running out to avoid civil war in Syria


LONDON — Back in 1989, when the communist regimes of Europe were tottering, almost every day somebody would say "There's going to be a civil war." And our job, as foreign journalists who allegedly had their finger on the pulse of events, was to say: "No, there won't." So most of us did say that, as if we actually knew. But the locals were pathetically grateful, and we turned out to be right.

It was just the same in South Africa in 1993-94. Another non-violent revolution was taking on another dictatorship with a long record of brutality, and once again most people who had lived their lives under its rule were convinced there would be a civil war. So we foreign journalists reassured them that there wouldn't be, and again we turned out to be right.

Now it's Syria's turn, and yet again most of the people who live there fear that their non-violent revolution will end in civil war. It's not my job to reassure them this time, because like most foreign journalists I can't even get into the country, but in any case I would have no reassurance to offer. This time, it may well end in civil war. Like Iraq.

The Assad dynasty in Syria is neither better nor worse than Saddam Hussein's regime was in Iraq. They had identical origins, as local branches of the same pan-Arab political movement, the Ba'ath Party. They both depended on minorities for their core support: the Syrian Ba'athists on the 10 percent Alawite (Shiite) minority in that country, and the Iraqi Ba'athists on the 20 percent of that country's people who were Sunni Arabs.

They were both ruthless in crushing threats to their monopoly of power. Hafez Assad's troops killed up to 40,000 people in Hama when Sunni Islamists rebelled in Syria in 1982, Saddam Hussein's army killed at least as many Shiites in southern Iraq when they rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War, and both regimes were systematically beastly to their local Kurds.

When the American invaders destroyed Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003, however, what ensued was not peace, prosperity and democracy. It was a brutal civil war that ended with Baghdad almost entirely cleansed of its Sunni Muslim population and the whole country cleansed of its Christian minority. Only the Kurds, insulated by their own battle-hardened army and their mountains, avoided the carnage.

So if the Ba'athist regime in Syria is driven from power, why should we believe that what follows will be any better than it was in Iraq? The country's ethnic and sectarian divisions are just as deep and complex as Iraq's, and although non-violent protest continues to be the main weapon of the pro-democracy movement, there is now also violent resistance to the regime's attacks on the population.

This is not to swallow the Ba'ath regime's claim that the army is protecting innocent Syrians from terrorist "armed gangs." The overwhelming majority of the estimated 2,900 civilians killed in the past six months were unarmed protesters killed by soldiers and secret policemen. But some Syrians — especially ex-soldiers who deserted from their units to avoid having to murder civilians — are starting to fight back with weapons.

Time is running out in Syria. The revolutionaries struggle to keep their movement inclusive and non-violent, but people are retreating into their narrow ethnic and religious identities and resistance is turning violent. The most vulnerable minorities, like the Christians, are starting to think about flight.

If it goes wrong in Syria, it could be almost as bad as the civil war that raged next-door in Lebanon for 15 years: massacres, refugees, devastation. What can be done to avert that outcome? Perhaps nothing short of foreign intervention on behalf of the revolutionaries can stop it now, for otherwise the regime will fight on until the country is destroyed.

Help has to come from outside, and it's hard to imagine that happening. NATO certainly won't take this one on: Syria has four times Libya's population and quite serious armed forces. Non-military intervention in the form of trade embargoes and the like is unlikely to work in time, even if the rest of the world could agree on it.

There is already foreign intervention in Syria, of course, but on the wrong side. The Shiite regimes in Iran and Iraq are already giving material support to the Ba'athist regime in Syria on the grounds that it is a) Shiite and b) steadfast in its resistance to Israeli expansion. And there is no point in hoping for timely concessions from President Bashar Assad, son of the late, great dictator: he is effectively the prisoner of the Alawite elite.

The Syrian revolutionaries are on their own. They will probably bring down the Ba'athists in the end, but by then the regime's increasingly violent efforts to suppress the revolt may well have triggered the civil war that everybody fears. Another six months like the last six months, and it will be all but inevitable.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.


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