Will Syria go the Way of Iraq?

Article Summary
The conflict playing out in Syria is in many ways reminiscent of the time leading to the deposal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. Abdel Hussein Shaaban outlines the geo-political, internal and sectarian factors that make Syria and Iraq similar, and says that unless an initiative for peace is found, Syria will burn like Iraq. 

Is the Iraqi scenario repeating itself in Syria? Or are there other possible scenarios that are no less dangerous than that which took place in Iraq?
Despite disparities between the two countries, including differences relating to development and the characteristics of their peoples, there are many commonalities between Syria and Iraq. Syria is controlled by the "ruling" Baath Party under a "constitution," just like its other half, Iraq [prior to the 2003 war]. Syria has also lost regional allies one after the other, something that also happened to Iraq. Furthermore, the Syrian regime, like its Iraqi counterpart did, has also lost its domestic allies, and both regimes suffer or have suffered from isolation. The Syrian regime's forces have began to weaken, whether this is openly visible or not.

Syria, like Iraq, has lost its international allies. However, some of the changes witnessed on the international stage attest to Russia's influence, and to some extent that of China, both inside and outside of the Security Council. Russia has tried to alleviate the burden of pressure on Syria caused by those who want to overthrow the regime there.

Moreover, Syria, like Iraq, has relied on a strong intelligence agency, whose power has begun to wane. The same thing has happened in Iraq in recent years. The Syrian regime, as was the case in Iraq [prior to 2003], had close friendships with a number of intellectual and media personalities. It has now begun to lose some of these relationships, whether this is publicly apparent or not, and some have gone as far as to display open hostility vis-a-vis the Syrian regime. These previous allies have sensed the speed with which the regime’s clock is ticking, although others have continued to support it, and will likely continue to do so until the regime's last breath. This is the same thing we witnessed in Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein regime’s allies used a variety of excuses to support the government there. Many claimed that they were against the blockade, or against aggression and international interference. They would use any argument they could to defend an oppressive and dictatorial regime.

The opposition in Syria is divided, just like the Iraqi opposition, regarding issues related to the blockade, foreign intervention and international sanctions. Also similar to Iraq, Syria suffers from a number of fundamental problems such as the Kurdish issue, which has flared up recently. [Prior to the revolution], there were approximately 300,000 Syrian Kurds without official citizenship. A number of Kurdish political and social groups began to focus on the idea of "autonomy" as a part of Syria's new democracy, which should recognize the political, cultural and national rights of the Kurds.

Syria, like Iraq, suffers from sectarian problems. This is because a political "micro-minority" controls government ideology. Many high-level officials come from the same sect and a number of them act as though they are superior to everyone else. Similarly, in Iraq a number of government figures coming from certain areas acted in a similar manner. These issues became more blatantly sectarian following Iraqi relocation campaigns in 1980, and prior to the Iran-Iraq War. These campaigns affected a number of Shiites and Kurds, whom the Iraqi government claimed were supporting Iran during the time of crisis between the two countries.

Syria's ruling elite hail from the village of Qardaha, while Iraq's leaders prior to the occupation came from Tikrit. The Syrian conflict has witnessed the targeting of Christians, something that occurred in Iraq during the siege and war, and grew to a terrifying extent during the occupation. This was one of the most dangerous aspects of the Iraqi conflict, and has emerged in Syria as the conflict intensifies, particularly the armed struggle between the opposition and the government.

Also like Iraq, Syria was a civil state in which women enjoyed certain rights, particularly concerning social and cultural issues. These rights could be threatened if the Islamist model proves strong after the end of the conflict, as was the case in Iraq, even if this model comes under the guise of political programs, pluralism and assertions of a political quota system. A religious atmosphere and social extremism have begun to prevail in Iraq.

In Syria, like in Iraq, the state gradually began to lose its power, control and influence in various regions of the country. Armed groups have begun attacking government sites, including vital state facilities and structures.

Also like Iraq, Syria's crisis is "Arab," since Arab states have instituted a blockade against the regime and have issued resolutions through the Arab League. They have also authorized the UN mission and Kofi Annan's envoy. However, Syria has reacted in the same manner as Iraq, not taking into account the regional balance of power.

As occurred in Iraq, Syria has been subjected to an unjust international blockade — in addition to unfair international resolutions — that will increase the suffering of the civilian population and lead to the disintegration of the Syrian social fabric. These sanctions will increase the chances of international intervention, since the resulting crisis will help provide justification for such a move. Like in Iraq, these international sanctions will contribute in a quick and decisive way to creating the conditions necessary for the regime's collapse, so that the Syrian regime will fall like a ripened apple — whether through foreign intervention or without it. The fall of the regime might take place soon or far into future, but as long as the international community is insistent on sanctions, its eventual downfall is inevitable.

Syria, like Iraq, is an enemy of Israel, and the latter will spare no effort to dismantle the Syrian army, hoping that it will disintegrate like the Iraqi army did following the 2003 war. This is a very dangerous objective. Syria will undoubtedly lose many of its scientists and academics, in addition to those who have already left over the past three decades. Much will be lost and wasted, so that when rebuilding finally begins, it will be a long and tough process.

Syrian leaders, much like their counterparts in Iraq, have rejected all advice regarding a political solution that would facilitate a smooth transition towards a democratic system. All of those involved — including the regime and its top officers — will pay a heavy price for failing to take this advice. The regime could have accepted a political solution at the beginning of the crisis and formed a national coalition government, led by the opposition, and consisting of one third opposition members, one third Baath Party members and one third independents and technocrats.

A number of prominent figures have been suggested as possible leaders during a transitional period in Syria. These potential leaders have been selected in an effort to encourage political diversity and ensure that the majority of the opposition forces participate in such a plan. The potential plan also involves holding free and fair elections — under international supervision — after a period lasting from six to nine months. This would be followed by constitutional amendments and the cancellation of laws that restrict basic freedoms, as well as the enactment of other measures that facilitate change and ensure the flow of communication among all sides. This would also ward off the threat of foreign intervention and political or military infiltration.

However, the Syrian leadership did not agree to such a solution, and did not stop prosecuting, repressing and terrorizing those who joined the peaceful civil protest movement. After a few months of crackdown, some factions within this movement resorted to taking up arms. This step was officially encouraged — although perhaps not publicly at first — on the Arab, regional and international levels, by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the European Union and even the United States.

Syria, like Iraq, may fall victim to so-called "false pretexts," as a result of statements made by public officials, who have no sense of responsibility, regarding the presence of chemical weapons. When Israelis hear these statements, they immediately imagine the possibility of these weapons being transferred to Hezbollah, which from their point of view is a "terrorist" organization that could use these weapons against Israel. This possibility could be used as an excuse to tighten the blockade on Syria, or even to justify military strikes that could affect both Syria and Lebanon.

The United States wants to deal with the Syrian crisis in a similar manner to the way in which they dealt with Iraq, meaning outside of the UN Security Council. This is done in an effort to sustain the internal conflict and eventually transform it into a civil war, perhaps even taking the further step of military intervention (although not at this present time). This is exactly what happened in Iraq, when Washington could not get the UN to issue another resolution following resolution 1441, they resorted to authorizing a coalition war without the consent of the UN.

Syria, as was the case in Iraq, cannot be saved by the proposed initiatives. Despite a balanced effort, a return to dialogue — which is linked to national identity and an internal solution — seems nearly impossible. At the same time, if the Syrian regime continues along the same path, the crisis will continue as well, and there is the possibility that safe havens and no-fly zones will be established, like we saw in Iraq. This will only increase fragmentation. The longer the conflict continues, the more people suffer.

However, there is one essential thing that distinguishes the situation in Syria from that in Iraq, which is Syria's strong alliance with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. This group is well respected in the region, particularly as a result of its resistance to the Zionist project and its response to Israeli aggression. Hezbollah is one of Iran's key regional allies, as well as a close ally of the Syrian regime. Although this alliance - as well as Russia's position regarding Syria - is a point of strength for the Syrian regime, which indicates that it will stay in power, at the same time it is a point of weakness. The internal crisis in Syria is worsening and acts of violence are becoming more common. Chaos is spreading and the potential for fragmentation is on the horizon, or rather knocking on the door. At this point there is no going back.

Is Syria "inevitably" going the way of Iraq, or are other scenarios possible? If parties do not agree on an initiative aimed at saving what remains in Syria — an initiative that would ensure a smooth and peaceful transition of power, place limits on authoritarianism and dictatorship, and outline plans for a transitional period and free elections under the banner of pluralism — then Syria will continue to burn like Iraq.

Found in: syrian economy, syrian christians, syrian, saddam hussein, russia, christians in the middle east, christians, chemical weapons, assad

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