The Struggle for Syria

CAIRO – As the violence in Syria mounts, the international community’s paralysis has become increasingly jarring. But the role of external regional forces is almost as important in fueling the domestic bloodshed as what is happening internally. If Syria could break free of the negative influences of regional politics, genuine change without continued violence might become possible.

Syria needs to manage its diverse ethnic and religious composition, and to decide its own position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But that is more difficult when neighboring countries are exploiting the country's heterogeneous makeup to pursue their own hegemonic agendas.

Syria, after all, sits at the center of mighty and antagonistic geopolitical forces. To the east looms Iran, with its anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric and vast regional ambitions. To the south sits Saudi Arabia, with its long friendship with the United States and its inherent hostility toward Iran's Islamic Republic. And to the north is Turkey, a pro-European, largely secular and democratic country that seeks to wield influence across the Arab world.

The region in and around Syria is also populated by extremist Islamist groups that are attempting to expand their spheres of influence – and that are quick to capitalize on instability in any country. Syria is particularly vulnerable in this regard, as extremists incite violence against minority religious groups by using, for example, television stations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The current regime in Syria, in its ruthless quest to remain in power, refuses to acknowledge peaceful protesters' demands for freedom and dignity. If it did – and if it met those demands – Islamists would not be able to hijack the demonstrations.

Peaceful change in Syria can nonetheless be achieved, and the international community can influence that process by recognizing that its continued focus on the country's “complexity” does nothing for its people. In fact, the obsession with Syria's sectarian rivalries provides destabilizing external forces with the oxygen that their inflammatory rhetoric requires.

The incitement against Syrian religious minorities promulgated by extremist TV stations, and by people like the Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council, coupled with equally damaging behavior by Iran, if left unchecked, could result in an even worse bloodbath, with Syria's people drawn into a war of all against all.

The international community allowed change in Tunisia and Egypt to proceed at those countries' own pace. In Syria, a Libyan-style military intervention is not warranted, but diplomatic intervention is needed to allow the country's people to determine its future.

The international community's goal must be to persuade neighboring countries to halt their brazen, unwarranted attacks on parts of Syrian society. In particular, the US, which has significant influence in Saudi Arabia, must act to stop attacks by that country's extremists on Syria's religious minorities – attacks motivated merely by a desire to provoke sectarian conflict. Likewise, efforts to weaken Iran's disruptive influence in the region must be maintained, while Turkey's regional ambitions must be kept in mind.

Optimism about the Syrian people's future must be tempered by realism about the challenges facing Syria's opposition movement and the international community alike. Dramatic, rapid change could result in prolonged failure. Fortunately, Syrians have no predilection for violence. For them, peaceful, gradual change is the best option. And that requires a national dialogue, overseen by the international community, aimed at bolstering internal unity – and thus at protecting the country from regional interference.

The situation in Syria is usually – and rightly – described as an intricate, multi-dimensional playing field with a wide variety of political actors and competing interests. But there has been an inadequate focus on the Syrian people’s simple desire for genuine reform, greater personal freedom, and more economic opportunity.

Syrians have experienced uninterrupted dictatorship for 40 years, and, with it, extreme economic hardship, including high unemployment, rising food prices, and endemic corruption. They are also now suffering from water shortages and a budget deficit that has been exacerbated by declining oil revenues. But Syrians are a remarkably resilient, resourceful people, as well as being young and well educated

With international assistance in developing Syria’s democratic institutions and political infrastructure, we can build a robust civil society that can assert its own identity and sovereignty, independent of undue outside influence. A new Syria, based on democratic principles, would not only benefit Syrians, but would be a force for stability throughout the region.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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