Saturday, May 5, 2012

How Syria became an Exception

The Syrian opposition is finally making the necessary visits to Russia, China and Iran, after it had wasted 2011 lingering mainly in the political hallways of Washington, DC. The trio power brokers have consistently asked both sides, the Syrian government and opposition to start negotiations sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) is underway, and major-general Mood is reporting relatively positive feedback from the ground of previous hotspots such as Homs, Idlib and Duma. At the same time, Syrian citizens are preparing for parliamentary elections. Countless adds and TV interviews are introducing candidates, who in turn are either independent or representatives of the newly minted political parties. In short, the leverage has shifted away dramatically from the Syrian outside opposition (SNC).

The interesting question is how did the situation reach this point? Was the Syrian outside opposition ever legitimate in the eyes of Syrians? Why did Syria become an exception when compared to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya? Or, is the Syrian case the new standard for future uprisings in Arab countries?

When Hussni Mubarak claimed that foreign conspiracy is behind the uprising in Egypt, he became a laughing stock in the Arab street because everyone knows that he was the embodiment of an "American Puppet". When Bashar al Assad claimed that there is a foreign conspiracy adding fuel to the fire in Syria, the Arab street reaction was different. The essence of why the Syrian case is different from both Tunisia and Egypt stems from this critical point.

Surveying news media outlets in the post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt reveal that there is support for al Assad against foreign meddling in Syria, and against foreign support for extremists active in Syria.

It is well understood that Syria was under an authoritarian government and was suffering from misguided liberal economic policies that have increased poverty to a staggering 50% in the past decade. The uprising in Syria had its political, economic and social justifications. No one was able, however, to carry on the task of championing the cause of the demonstrators. The reasons boil down to that the Syrian intellectual dissidents in Europe and US had varying overarching agendas. Some of which were stated in a WSJ article of an interview with Burhan Ghaliun the head of the SNC (Syrian National Council) who stated, for example, that a free Syria will sever ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbullah. Clearly a pleasing announcement to solicit US and western support for the SNC, which they got.

Once the confrontation became violent between the government and armed groups in Syria in the summer of last year, the opposition escalated the demands for forceful regime change. Pulling a Chalabi by the Syrian opposition is not a surprise, however the stark miscalculation of the SNC by not considering the sever lack of support inside Syria for military intervention is mind boggling. The next miscalculation came when there was international support for Kofi Anan's mission in Syria, which subsequently paved the way for the current UN mission, and the SNC declared that the mission will fail even before it started. The SNC, furthermore, adopted the violent confrontation with the military and solicited military aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which both have provided).

It is hard to explain away SNCs past tactical failures, considering that they are now contemplating what they have refused before, namely to start negotiation with the Syrian government.

It took the international community a whole year to catch its breath from the dramatic unfolding of the political awakening erupting in some Arab countries. The reactions towards the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya have varied. Some observers might add that the US dealt with the previous uprisings with a prudent cautious welcome. 

Based on results of the parliamentary elections in Egypt, the cautious aspect of American Foreign policy towards future uprisings will only increase. The name of the game will most likely be 'how to manage change" not "how to support change". 

Managing the change through an inclusive approach is clear in the Syrian case. The United States engaged the Arab League, a regional organization, from the very beginning. The UN along with the Arab League are part of the multilateral approach to a possible solution to the Syrian turmoil. Countries that have supported military escalation, KSA and Qatar, eventually became outliers, outside the realm of international cooperation to resolve the crisis. 

The SNC engaged with and solicited support from the US based on a 2003 - 2006 mentality. US foreign policy however has shifted and evolved into multilateralism and a deliberate management style,  coordinating with the rising powers. The focus of the rising powers  is to deescalate the crisis, find a path towards negotiation, and resolve the matter politically.

The lessons learned from the Syrian case are endless and are just starting to unfold.

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