In the courtyard of his Ottoman-era house in Sarouja, a district of narrow alleys near the Damascus citadel, Youssef Abdelke stoops to feed his doves. The birds are free to fly over his rickety second-story veranda and take wing for anywhere in the troubled Syrian capital, but they always return, sometimes with new companions.
Abdelke’s own vision of his country’s future is gloomy in the extreme. One of Syria’s best-known artists, these days he draws rather than paints. Charcoal provides the somber quality he wants for his mournful still lifes: a fish with a rope tied round its middle, a knife protruding from a bunch of flowers, a series of boot prints in a pool of blood. The starkest image rests on an easel in his cluttered ground-floor studio. It shows a woman kneeling with her hands on a kitchen chair on which is propped the photograph of a young man, who is, one has to assume, now dead. Her bent body, shrouded in black, has the monumentality of a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, the German artist Abdelke acknowledges as his heroine.
As Syria’s civil war intensifies, Abdelke reflects the feelings of much of the country’s intelligentsia. Strongly critical of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they deplore the way the peaceful uprising—which they eagerly supported last year—is being transformed. Its character has become increasingly religious, and foreigners rather than Syrians are driving the change.
“More and more weapons are coming in, and not just basic ones. The Gulf states are paying enormous sums to provide arms, and they have a completely different vision from most Syrians. Even worse, groups of Salafis linked to Al Qaeda are arriving with an outlook on life that is even more closed than that of the Gulf states,” Abdelke says. “We’re moving toward a war between Sunnis and Alawites [the minority offshoot from Shiism to which the Assad family belongs]. We could be facing a real danger of Syria’s fragmentation.”
Abdelke is a longtime critic of the Assad regime. A member of a left-wing party, he spent two years in prison from 1978 to 1980 before leaving for Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1983 he was told he could not come home. His exile lasted a quarter of a century, but in 2008 he returned to Damascus with dreams but no real hopes of change. On his studio wall is a Parisian slogan from the anti-Sarkozy movements. “Rêve générale” (general dream), it says, a pun on the more familiar call for a general strike (grêve générale).
Abdelke blames the Syrian government for the escalation of the crisis. It was Assad who provoked the switch to armed rebellion and violence by rejecting dialogue with the opposition when the protests began. But the issue has gone way beyond that, in his view. “The situation is no longer in Syrian hands. The conflict has become regional and international. We are pawns in a big game,” Abdelke says. He hopes Russia and the United States can reach some sort of agreement to end it, but he has little optimism. “The outside powers still think there can be winners and losers,” he says. “It could go on for months, until the international powers change their position and really press for dialogue. Meanwhile, Syrians will go on dying in the street. For the outsiders, these deaths are secondary, just as Syrian freedom is secondary as far as they are concerned.”
On an earlier visit to Damascus seven months ago, I found opposition supporters in far less bleak a mood. At that time, peaceful protests were frequent and exhilarating, even though sniper bullets or detention made defiance risky. The Assad regime had lasted much longer than the family dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt, but opposition supporters were optimistic that the government would crumble within the next few weeks or months.
Many Damascenes were on the fence. While supporting the aspirations for reform, they were already anxious about a collapse into all-out civil war. Some feared that Assad’s departure would lead to a worse regime. Now, after a summer in which thousands more people have died, the feeling is growing that the government will not easily be defeated, and that the country is doomed to suffer a river of bloodshed before change comes. The flow of foreign arms, financed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and supplemented by communications equipment and satellite data from Western intelligence agents in southern Turkey, has given the rebels a new ability to mount attacks and ambushes on government police and troops.
Hundreds of foreign jihadis, many with bomb-making experience, have joined the opposition. Yet the government’s determination to hang on to power shows no sign of weakening, even though the rebels have established zones of control in several rural areas and smaller towns. In response, the government has turned to more-lethal weapons, such as helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers. Its security forces, centered on the Alawite-dominated Fourth Armored Division commanded by Assad’s younger brother Maher, are well armed and loyal despite a few high-level defections from other parts of the regime, as well as the frenetic Western and rebel propaganda that exaggerates every blow, real or perceived, to the government’s morale.
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The external wings of the opposition—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian National Council—still favor outright Western intervention on the pattern of Libya last year, but large sections of the internal opposition are against it. Their views are rarely reported in the Western media, partly as a result of the Syrian government’s misguided policy of limiting visas for foreign journalists. But it’s also because the opposition of many Syrians to arming the rebels simply doesn’t fit into the dominant Western narrative.
Louai Hussein, founder of the NGO Building the Syrian State and a veteran opposition activist who spent seven years in prison in the 1980s, told me in his Damascus office that he expects the rebels to become more effective. “They can always put pressure on the regime and create problems. They will gain experience and may be able to mount better attacks as time goes on. But I don’t foresee any regions breaking away like Benghazi. Armed resistance cannot change the regime. It is too strong in military terms. The army and security branches show absolute loyalty. The army will not switch as it did in Tunisia.”
Given the complexity of the Syrian state, more violence will just lead to more civil war, he believes. “It is not a valid way to bring democracy. Our main goal is to achieve a democratic state,” he asserts, “not just the fall of Assad.”
Arguments like his and those of Abdelke have become more urgent as Syria’s tragedy mounts. In February, Damascus was a haven of tranquillity compared with cities like Homs and Hama: cafes, restaurants and stores stayed open late, and people walked the leafy streets in the city center without fear. Now no part of the capital is immune from car bombs or rebel attacks. The security forces are as jumpy as ordinary citizens. One afternoon this past August, I heard an explosion near the interior ministry, followed by rounds of rifle fire that lasted for ten minutes. Once the shooting had stopped, it became clear that nothing more serious than a percussion bomb had been detonated. But the troops guarding the ministry and a police station across the street had reacted in panic with wild shooting, according to shopkeepers who showed me the bullet holes in their windows.
Opposition sources who feed news to the outside world frequently exaggerate their claims. The fact that Damascus province stretches as far as the border with Lebanon tends to be obscured, so that reports of fighting “in Damascus” or clashes “in Damascus suburbs” can be as misleading as a report on fighting “in New York” if it did not specify the difference between the city and the vast upstate region. In July, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels did penetrate Midan and Old Mezzeh, districts within two miles of the city center, but they retreated after a few days. They’ve had more success in about a third of the capital’s outlying districts, particularly to the northeast and east, in an area known as the Orchards, about ten miles from the center. The government is going all out to restore control there, first by cutting water, electricity and mobile phone coverage, then by launching artillery barrages and airstrikes and sending in its militias, the notorious shabiha. There have been numerous credible reports that these units have committed massacres.
The government’s counterattack has forced tens of thousands of people to flee, mainly to safer areas in the inner city. Some sixty-six schools in Damascus have been sheltering homeless families. Others have fled to Jordan.
The rebel attacks in Damascus have created new divisions within opposition ranks and are troubling to many ordinary citizens. Residents of Old Mezzeh told me they wished the rebels hadn’t come into the area to mount attacks on police stations and army posts when it was clear the government would retaliate with overwhelming force. In the words of Dr. Abdelaziz Alkhayer, a longstanding member of the National Coordination Committee, an opposition group, who spent fourteen years in prison for political activity: “It was foolish to try to attack, and it’s caused heavy human loss. It was spontaneous, not well organized, and they ran out of ammunition quickly. Some people who took part now feel deceived. We don’t ask the FSA to put down their guns; otherwise they would be slaughtered. But they should not use them for offensives in city streets unless they can hold the ground.” (Ominously, Alkhayer and a colleague were abducted in late September, shortly after arriving back in Damascus to attend an NCC conference.)
Alkhayer was one of a dozen opponents of the Assad regime—some in exile, others still living in Syria, representing Islamists, leftists, secular democrats and Kurds—who met in Rome in July under the auspices of the lay Catholic organization the Community of Sant’Egidio. The community has a long history of successful “track two” diplomacy and peacemaking.
In a declaration that was barely reported in the foreign press, they called on the FSA to rethink its strategy. “We are not neutral. We are part of the Syrian people, which is suffering because of the oppression of a dictatorship and its corruption,” they said.
We are firmly opposed to any discrimination based on religious confession or ethnicity, from whatever side it comes. We are in favor of a Syria of equals sharing citizenship. We desire to see a Syria that is a homeland for all, able to respect life and human dignity in justice. The military solution is holding the Syrian people hostage and does not offer a political solution capable of responding to the people’s deepest aspirations. Violence leads people to think that there is no alternative to the use of weapons. But the victims, the martyrs, the injured, the detained, the disappeared, the mass of refugees inside and outside the country, call on us to take the responsibility to stop the spiral of violence. We commit ourselves to supporting all forms of peaceful political struggle and civil resistance and to promote a new phase of meetings and conferences inside the country…. We invite our fellow citizens in the Free Syrian Army and all those bearing arms, to participate in a political process to establish a peaceful, secure and democratic Syria. We cannot accept Syria being transformed into a theatre of regional and international conflict.
The Rome declaration followed the failure of Kofi Annan’s mission to get the government and the opposition, as well as their foreign backers, to recognize that neither side can win. As special envoy for the UN Security Council and the Arab League, Annan tried to persuade all sides that compromise was the only realistic solution. On June 30 in Geneva, he appeared to achieve a huge breakthrough when he got the five permanent members of the Security Council to come together as an Action Group for Syria, which approved a “final communiqué” setting out the “principles and guidelines for a Syrian-led transition.”
A detailed and comprehensive blueprint for change, it called for a transitional governing body to be set up with full executive powers, composed of members of the current government and the opposition, and said there should be a firm timetable for new elections and a democratic process established for drafting a new constitution.
The communiqué referred obliquely to the chaos in Iraq in 2003 after the United States essentially destroyed the Iraqi state by disbanding the army and police and excluding senior members of the Baath Party from the new administration. It called for the “continuity of governmental institutions and qualified staff” and said public services, including the army and security forces, should be preserved as long as they performed according to human rights standards. Implicitly calling for an arms embargo, the document stated: “Action Group members are opposed to any further militarisation of the conflict.”
What the communiqué did not say was also important. There was no statement that Assad must leave power or that he had lost legitimacy. Instead, the United States and its European allies were offered a diplomatic escape from the cul-de-sac into which their hasty analysis of the Syrian crisis led them last year, when they concluded that Assad would quickly fall. They accused him of losing legitimacy and cut their ties. Instead, unlike Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi, he has clung to power successfully.
Now it is only the Russians and Chinese who maintain contacts with all sides. Members of the Western-backed Syrian National Council as well as representatives of the internal opposition have made several trips to Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly called on the Syrian government to negotiate seriously with the opposition. When Qadri Jamil, a deputy prime minister, and Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, were in Moscow in August, Lavrov urged them to have as frequent contact with the opposition as possible. When he met Hillary Clinton in Vladivostok in September, Lavrov pointed out at their press conference that the Syrian government had followed the Geneva principles by appointing a negotiator, whereas the opposition has not—nor has the West urged it to do so.
Russia has come under constant Western criticism for allegedly blocking a solution, by which is meant that Russia refuses to call on Assad to resign as the condition for a settlement or to impose sanctions on Syria to try to bring about his departure. In fact, it’s the West that has been one-sided, trying to produce regime change through civil war and resisting every effort—including Annan’s—to get a political process started.
Instead of accepting the Geneva principles as a turning point, Secretary Clinton effectively withdrew her support as soon as she left Switzerland. When the Russians proposed that the Security Council endorse the principles formally, their draft was rejected. Instead, the Western allies drafted a one-sided resolution threatening Assad with more sanctions, while saying nothing about putting pressure on the opposition to negotiate.
The West has also sidelined Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s proposal for Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to form a contact group. Although its main aim was to persuade Iran to tell Assad that he must leave power, and in this sense was in line with US policy, the proposal upset Washington for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it gave Iran a role and implicitly accepted that the Iranians could not be shut out of regional guarantees for Syria’s stability if and when Assad departs. It attempted to draw Saudi Arabia into an admission that further exacerbation of Sunni-Shiite tensions, both inside Syria and throughout the region, is highly risky. Morsi also disappointed Washington by pressing, like Annan, for a political solution and rejecting foreign military intervention.
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What will happen once the US election is over? If re-elected, President Obama will have three options. The first is to continue the current policy: intensifying the killing in Syria by strengthening the armed opposition with supplies of intelligence data and communications equipment and supporting the transfer of increasingly sophisticated weaponry. The second is to escalate the violence even more dramatically by unleashing a Libya-style NATO intervention.
The third option is to switch tack completely and embrace the letter and the spirit of the Geneva principles. This would mean reaching an agreement with Russia on a mutual arms embargo for all sides in Syria. Russia would urge Assad to accept a cease-fire and negotiate seriously for a government of national unity, while the West would urge the opposition, in particular the Syrian National Council, the Muslim Brotherhood and regional FSA commanders, to do likewise. To convince the Syrian rebels that no US cavalry will be coming over the hill, Obama should take NATO military intervention off the table and say he will never support it throughout his presidency.
Inside the Beltway and in the prevailing media narrative on Syria, the third course may sound radical. But it conforms with public opinion: the German Marshall Fund’s just-published annual survey of transatlantic trends found that 55 percent of Americans, 59 percent of Britons and 57 percent of Turks want their countries to stay completely out of the Syrian conflict.
Obama should heed their call. Only the third option can avert catastrophe.