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HindustanTimes Mon,29 Dec 2014
Down, but not at all out
First Published: 22:50 IST(8/1/2013)
Last Updated: 23:13 IST(8/1/2013)

Reacting angrily to President Bashar al-Assad's speech on Sunday calling for an end to the rebellion, the US State department said he was "detached from reality". But much the same might be said of the US and of Assad's other western and Arab foes, and with greater justification. After two years of bloody attrition, the truth is that Assad is still in power, shows no sign of heeding demands to quit and is far from beaten. The evolving reality is that he may yet see off his many enemies and claim victory in Syria's civil war.

Explanations for this remarkable feat of survival lie not with Assad's personal abilities, which are limited, nor with the durability of his domestic supporters, who are in the minority, nor with the president's ruthlessness in prosecuting the military campaign. More potent has been his subtler achievement in convincing would-be western interventionists that what might follow him would almost certainly be worse.

This process of geopolitical re-education has been gradual but highly effective. One powerful aspect is the highlighting of the growing role of Islamist fundamentalists inside Syria, whom Assad regularly decries as foreign terrorists threatening the Syrian nation. This jihadi 'scare factor' is rooted in last February's video message by the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called on pious Muslims, primarily Sunnis living in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, to help destroy the Syrian regime.

The dawning realisation that Syria was not another Egypt or Libya, whose revolutions produced relatively clear-cut results, and that it might well become another failed State, harbouring al-Qaida fanatics bent on global confrontation, has had a big impact on western opinion, not least in the US. This fear has been compounded by numerous reports, widely credited in Israel and the US, that Assad's chemical weapons arsenal could fall into jihadi hands.

The West's hedging of bets over Syria has become glaring in recent months even as its rhetoric has intensified. Political demands, principally that Assad step down immediately and without preconditions, have become ever more inflexible. The western position is that nothing less than regime change at the top will do. But at the same time, the argument about doing what needs to be done militarily and logistically to ensure that objective seems to be over - and the rebels are the losers.

The fact that the US and Britain have looked on as a second UN peace mission runs into the sand, the fact that no substantive pressure has been put on Russia's Vladimir Putin to drop his Syrian diplomatic protection racket, the fact that military intervention is publicly and noisily ruled out and the fact that no concerted international humanitarian relief effort has been mounted to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan all point to one conclusion: that the west is not serious about enforcing Assad's demise. It is a message that Assad has undoubtedly heard.

But despite all the huffing and puffing in Washington (and London), decisive intervention is unlikely. It's time the likes of Obama and William Hague admitted this reality and started dealing with what is, rather than what might have been.


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