After a spectacular clear morning walking in the older parts of Istanbul and a visit to the Grand Bazaar, I took in a discussion of Syria this afternoon at Bahçeşehir University moderated with distinction by Samir Aita of le Monde Diplomatique, who noted the key role of the youth movement in Syria, whose cohort faces a disastrous job market with no more than one in five finding even inadequate employment. Control of the Syria by a small, rich rent-seeking elite is no longer acceptable to the younger generation.
He wanted to know whether Syria is experiencing a revolution, a conspiracy or a civil war? Will there be a military or a negotiated solution? If the latter, who should negotiate, how will they attain a modicum of unity and what roles should international powers play, in particular Qatar, Russia and Turkey?
I am not going to identify the respondents by name, even though this was a more or less public event. I don’t want my reports in someone’s file.
A young Syrian activist confirmed it was a revolution but suggested that the civil (nonviolent) revolt needs to split from the military (violent) rebellion, because a democratic outcome requires the former and not the latter (which will lead to civil war). Military intervention will not bring what the Syrian opposition wants. Success in Syria means a democracy established without international intervention.
Confusion reigns in Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has been fragmented among ethnic/sectarian communities in a way that does not reflect Syrian reality. The regime has built a strategy quickly that divides the opposition and drives it in a violent direction. The opposition will be willing to negotiate with secondary members of the regime as well as with Russia and Iran, who are mainstays of the regime, but not with Bashar al Assad.
A Lebanese political scientist living in Paris suggested the Syrian revolution is undergoing three simultaneous processes: militarization of the rebellion because of regime violence (which will create big demobilization challenges in the post-Assad period), territorialization (which will create big governance issues after Assad) and regionalization, with spillover and external interference that makes the conflict increasingly a proxy war among foreign powers (which may ignite a regional conflagration). For the Iranians, the conflict in Syria is now an existential one and they will continue to support Bashar al Assad, but only up to a point, when they feel they have to abandon him to limit their losses. Israel would have preferred that Bashar stay in power, but they have now concluded that the best solution is to replace him with a strong military regime, to block jihadists from taking over.
Negotiation will eventually be necessary, but only on the conditions of the regime’s surrender, in particular amnesty, and an exit for Iran and Russia from their support to Bashar al Assad. There is also a need for negotiation within the revolution on a minimal united front: the role of Islam in the future of Syria, the position of minorities, and international guarantees and assistance.
For the moment, the Annan plan is the only political game in town. To succeed it needs some sticks for use against the regime and as many as 3000 monitors (there are currently fewer than 300) as well as a clear commitment to transition away from Bashar al Assad. If the Annan plan fails, there will be civil war.
A Syrian Kurd underlined that the Kurds have suffered 60 years of oppression in Syria and want to see a real revolution. But the regime is trying to make the rebellion into a sectarian and ethnic conflict. The Kurds fear their efforts will be viewed as separatism. There really is a conspiracy, by the regime, to make the revolution into a civil war. That is increasingly successful, with the conflict framed as Islamists against the Alawites. There will be no military solution without a political one. The Kurds are willing to participate in a unified opposition, but they want to hear an answer to the plan that they have already put forward. They want to see a tolerant society emerge from this revolution.
Another young Syrian activist underlined that the student movement has been in existence since 2001, when Bashar al Assad came to power. The goals have always been freedom, dignity and citizenship. The demonstrators often chant “We are all Kurds, we are all Arabs, we are all Syrians.” The Free Syria Army cannot win a war with the regime. The international powers all have their own agendas, the U.S. with Russia and China and Qatar wanting to export gas to Europe via Syria.
Little did I expect at the end of the presentations to find the session hijacked by hostile remarks from Turks in the audience on the Kurdish question. I should have known. The questioners had heard little about Syria, only about how the Kurds would get what they wanted from the Syrian revolution. The news was not welcome. One of the Syrian Arabs was unequivocal in reply: the Kurds will decide their own destiny.