Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan

The ongoing atrocities, especially the horrifying massacre committed by the Assad forces in Houla, have stunned the international community and prompted them to find ways to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. As a result, the Syrian crisis has become an international embarrassment for those concerned states.

The Syrian political issue is very complex. It involves domestic, regional and international considerations, including the Syrian regime itself, Russia and the United States. For the Syrian regime, holding on to power is the objective; for Russia, it is the nuclear naval base for its Black Sea Fleet in the port of Tartus (the only naval base in the Mediterranean — the warm water); and the United States’ concern is the threat of an spillover of the Syrian crisis to its allies, particularly Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the entire Arab Gulf states.

With respect to the Baathist Syrian regime, the country’s population is 21.9 million. The ethnic composition of this population: Syrian Arabs, including Palestinian refugees constitute over 90 percent, Assyrians/Syriacs 877,000 – 1,200,000 (with other Christians 2.5 million); Kurds 2 million (9 percent); Turkmen 750,000 – 1,500,000; Druze 500,000; Armenians 190,000; Circassians 100,000; and Iraqi refugees 1,300,000. The numbers of the population composition indicate that geographical separation in Syria is unlikely.

The religious makeup of the Syrian population: Sunni Muslims 74 percent, Shiites with its various sects (Alawite, Twelvers and Ismailis) combined constitute 12 percent; Christians with various denominations (Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants and others) 10 percent; Druze 3 percent.

President Bashar Assad is an Alawite. He, his family, and members of his religious sect are ruling Syria. In fact, Alawites dominate all branches of the Syrian government and hold key military positions, although they are a minority within the Shiite minority.

The Syrian uprising started in Deraa with nine to 15 teenagers’ graffiti on the walls that said: “The people want to topple the regime.” The intelligence office, under the control of Gen. Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Bashar Assad, arrested them and subjected them to extreme physical brutality. They were beaten and their finger nails were extracted. The teens’ families visited the head of that intelligence office where they were very badly treated. They turned to Deraa mayor who meted out the same treatment.

The next day, the teenagers’ families and their tribe members protested in front of the security governor’s office. Two youths went to the adjacent local court and set on fire two rooms that contained trial records. The Baathist regime is a totalitarian police state that rules Syria with an iron fist, and the intelligence apparatus is very much feared for its unchecked brutal heavy-handed attitude toward the Syrian citizens.

Damascus was alarmed by this arson incident thinking it might trigger uprisings similar to those in Tunis, Egypt, and Libya. Subsequently, Maj. Gen. Rostom Ghazalah was sent to calm the enraged protesters. He surprisingly gave in to their demands and promised to carry out development projects, specifically related to agriculture. People were embolden by this concession and marched to the local mosque enchanting, “The people want to topple the Baathist regime.”

Security forces were sent in to quell the protests and 37 people were killed. Subsequently, protests picked up momentum and swamped entire Syria. The turn of events indicate that there was a deep resentment against the Baathist regime and its practices among the majority of Syrians and that only needed a spark similar to the one that came from Deraa.

Almost entire Syrian population revolted with a willingness to sacrifice their lives and a firm determination to stand against this brutal regime. As a result, their fear dissipated and the army’s use of brutal methods failed to subdue the Syrians. Syrians have now reached a point of no return.

Obviously, the Syrian regime lost its legitimacy since the first bullet was fired at the protesters in Deraa — a fact fully comprehended by the Baathists’ upper echelon. The Syrian regime has lost its respectable position in the Middle East and among the international community. It cannot maintain its legitimacy especially after the massacre of defenseless children and their families by the Syrian Army despite the presence of the United Nations’ inspectors in the country. Bashar Assad has realized that he has become an embarrassing liability for the international community and most states have become uneasy with his regime, let alone supporting him, including his longstanding friend on the Security Council, Russia. Moscow may not want to risk harming its international image and interests in the world, including the Middle East by associating itself with a tyrant regime.

Assad knows well that his time is up as a president of Syria and he has to go. The question is, how. It has to be a face-saving exit for him and the international community ought to find a way. Bashar is most likely concerned about the state of affairs after his departure, specifically the fate of his Alawite sect members who hold key positions, especially in the army, which has committed horrific atrocities against the Sunni population, who might seek vengeance.

Russia is concerned about losing its nuclear naval base in the port of Tartus after Assad’s exit and its potential alliance with the United States, as had been the case when President Anwar Sadat allied with the West, specifically with the United States and expelled Russian experts from Egypt.

According to Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, the envisioned scenarios to resolve the Syrian crisis, briefly, are: (1) democratic process, (2) more international sanctions, and (3) armed intervention either direct or indirect, and this is the least preferred scenario, which the US is working to avoid.

The indirect armed intervention, however, is clouded with vagueness. There is no united Syrian opposition with central command and control, which makes it difficult to define a specific group as the primary beneficiary of the armament, and the possibility of Islamic extremists mixed in these groups. On the other hand, the guerrilla-like war is most likely to prolong the Syrian crisis almost indefinitely, and, consequently, the crisis may engulf other neighboring states.

The solution to the Syrian crisis could be providing guarantees to those that have a stake in it, namely Russia, President Bashar Assad and the United States. As for Russia, it should be assured that its interests in Syria are maintained, including its nuclear naval base in Tartus, which is the primary bargaining-chip for Assad with Russia. The Russian presence in this area would prevent possible engagement similar to the one between Israel and other Arab countries, working as a balancing buffer zone.

This bargaining-chip allowed the Baathist regime to comfortably commit its atrocities against unarmed citizens, with the support of Russia without which its back would be against the wall. This political arrangement would also encourage Russia to convince or pressure Assad to cede power.

The international community ought to provide a way out for Assad. The United States, Russia, China, the United Nations, and the Arab League ought to work on a type of guarantees to protect Alawites by forming peace-keeping forces in Syria with two primary functions: Protecting Alawites’ cities and towns and overseeing the democratic elections in Syria. The United States should be assured that the outcomes of the elections should be respected and recognized. This solution should be satisfactory to all concerned states, and they would be at ease associating with Syria.                              –Arab News