History is accelerating in Syria, but in which direction? The assassination of heads of the security and military apparatus last week was a serious setback for the Syrian regime. It came at a crucial moment, as elements of the Free Syrian Army were struggling to put the regime under pressure in its Damascus stronghold. Morale was boosted in the anti-regime camp, and other groups joined the battle, freeing different cities and border points.
But the regular army is still strong, as well as the militias (known as shabiha) committed to President Bashar al-Assad’s power system. Questions now arise, though, about the final fate of this struggle, even if evidence on the ground shows that both sides want to fight to the end. Will the army continue to follow Assad, his brother Maher and cousins Hafez and Rami Makhlouf – the real people heading the fight, not those killed in the bomb attack on the security headquarters? Or could a ceasefire be brokered, with or without the help of the international observers, between the regular and the “free” armies?
What makes such a ceasefire difficult is the shabiha, recruited at tribal and community levels, as well as other opposition groups driven by Sunni revenge, or al-Qaida-formed ideology, and supported by regional powers. The first are starting to send their families out of major towns towards their villages and local strongholds. The second are taking advantage of the general chaos to kill on a sectarian basis, like the recent killing of Shia citizens in Saida Zeinab. Both these groups could lead Syria into a spiral of violence with death tolls far exceeding those of the last 16 months, and towards a division of the country based on local dominance.
In this context, the situation of the Kurds in north-eastern Syria is exemplary. While violence there has been much less intense, Kurdish militias are now being formed; and calls for self-determination will be difficult to reconcile with the call of all opposition groups for a future Syria with equal citizenship for everyone.
These recent developments come in a period of intense diplomatic activities. The 30 June Geneva agreement on transition in Syria should have eased the “struggle for Syria” between superpowers, putting pressure instead on regional powers to ensure a smooth transition. But, astonishingly, the US has chosen escalation, and a day after the security chiefs’ killing in Damascus it pushed the UN security council to impose chapter 7 sanctions on an already collapsing Syrian state – even though this had no chance of being adopted and was, ultimately, vetoed by Russia and China.
Of course the Russian position could be understood to mean that they prefer to lose Syria as an ally rather than be seen to abandon it. But it could also mean that they consider this stance could allow them to play a significant role in an international peacekeeping force that may be needed to avoid fully-fledged civil war following the complete collapse of Syrian state institutions. The Russians know, like the Americans and others, that the Syrian regime is already “down” and that Assad has to go. All elements of the political opposition agreed on that in their conference in Cairo this month. What is at stake now is what comes next.
The real question here is whether the US wants a stable and united Syria, even after a long period of transition. And does it have the means to influence such an outcome through the emerging regional powers of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey? A clean break with the current regime has already occurred within a large section of the Syrian population. Some could even be imagined calling for Turkish or Israeli bombing just to get rid of the Assads; while Iran and Hezbollah have been transformed in popular minds from strategic allies to enemies.
But will the departure of Assad be sufficient for the Qatari and Saudi emirs, as well as the ruling AKP in Turkey? Or do they want more? In essence, could they accept a united Syria that could only be maintained on the basis of a secular state with equal citizenship? Would they accept such a state, strong, democratic and free, even after a long transition? This remains unclear.
Samir Aita is a member of the Syrian Democratic Forum, and editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Arabic edition.