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No road to Damascus yet

It will soon be one year since the Syrian regime, in what will go down as one of the worst-timed acts of police repression, arrested a group of graffiti painters and triggered what now has overtones of a civil war.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2012 22:14 IST

It will soon be one year since the Syrian regime, in what will go down as one of the worst-timed acts of police repression, arrested a group of graffiti painters and triggered what now has overtones of a civil war. In part because no one believes what is happening in Yemen is little more than a recurrence of that country’s traditional tribal rivalries, Syria is now the last major drama of the so-called Arab Spring. Unfortunately, it seems set to become the bloodiest act of this political drama and one that will challenge the international community’s ability to respond. The reason is a number of interlocking stalemates, a gridlock created by a global fatigue and local concerns about the consequences of the Arab revolts. The first and most important stalemate is between the Bashar al-Assad regime and the rebels seeking to overthrow his government. The Damascus struggle and its challengers have fought themselves to a near draw. The rebels seemed to have the upper hand through much of the second-half of last year, as they made intrusions into the capital and the Syrian army was wracked by defections. This month, Assad’s regime has made a number of determined assaults on the centres of rebellion like Homs, the fallout of which has yet to be determined. It’s clear that Damascus lacks the ability to crush the rebellion. But it also has the resources to keep hanging on to power for many more months. The Syrians’ war is more than just a Syria-Alawi struggle. There is also a clear class divide between the protagonists.

As the recent UN resolution vote indicated, there’s nothing even remotely close to a consensus in the international community about what to do about Syria. If anything, there seems to be a sha-rply diminishing interest about the fate of Syria or its people. India’s vote seems to have been motivated by its traditional bogey about not legitimising another western military intervention. The West’s vote seems more about squeezing Syria so that it doesn’t have to intervene. Russia’s decision was partly about the problems Vladimir Putin is facing back home. China’s motives are the most murky and may reflect a conflict between Beijing’s paranoia about domestic dissidence and national priorities regarding energy security.

The countries with the greatest stake in developments in Syria are its neighbours: Turkey, Iran, Israel and the like. It has been interesting to see how these countries, many of whom aspire to be leaders of the Arab Street, try to sound supportive of the rebellion but avoid doing anything materially against the Assad regime. If these countries prefer to let events in Syria take their own course, it makes little sense for nations further afield to invest themselves in what is going on. Syrians, unfortunately, are destined to experience the bloodiest, most protracted and, because of that, possibly the most radicalising Arab protests.