The Daily Star
Friday November 25 2011
By Michael Glackin
On a dry, chilly Damascus night in late 2004, I shared a pot of sweet strong coffee with Abdullah Dardari, then Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs and the man charged with dragging the country’s moribund economy into the 21st century.
As he outlined his plans for opening up Syria to foreign investment, creating new jobs, and increasing prosperity, I pointed out that economic reform had a habit of being a catalyst for political reform, something that was unlikely to find favor with the ruling Baath Party.
Dardari smiled and assured me that political change was part of President Bashar Assad’s plan for Syria. His exact words were: “The understanding that there is a need for political and judicial reform is there. It’s not a taboo subject. I am not a Baath Party member, but if you look at what’s happening in the party today there is recognition of the need to develop the political system.”
Well that was then. In the event, Syrians got neither political nor economic reform. Dardari, the only reform-minded senior politician within the Syrian regime, was ousted in March when Assad sacked Mohammad Naji al-Otari’s Cabinet. Dardari’s removal came partly because Assad had grown tired of criticism within the Baath of his largely failed attempts to attract foreign investment – a pretty impossible task considering the Kafkaesque bureaucracy underpinning Assad rule. It came also because removing a well-known reformer sent a signal to Syrians that institutional changes of any sort that undermined Assad’s grip on power (Dardari’s tentative reforms increased unemployment, and with that anti-Assad sentiment) would not be part of Syria’s future.
Assad’s new government, unveiled in April, was a retreat to the bunker. Assad is increasingly isolated, with only Russia and China preventing global sanctions from being imposed on Syria, and just Yemen and Lebanon offering lukewarm Arab support. He has now dug in, surrounded by family and cronies. But the forces enveloping his regime – European and American sanctions, international disapproval, and unending street protests verging on civil war – look overwhelming.
It is the realization that the game finally looks over for Assad that is currently exercising the British government. Particularly against the backdrop of current events in Egypt, the United Kingdom is very worried about what will happen next in Syria.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s warning to Syria’s disparate opposition groups to “put aside their differences” was the diplomatic equivalent of a clip around the ear to squabbling children. Hague’s meeting this week with opposition representatives may have, in the words of the government, “intensified the U.K.’s engagement with the opposition.” In reality, it has given London a rude awakening about the caliber of Assad’s opponents.
In contrast to its approach to opponents of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, Hague insisted the U.K. would not recognize the Syrian opposition while it remains so fractured and poorly coordinated. When you consider that the Libyan opposition was no paragon of unity, you get a good idea of how highly the British government rates the Syrian opposition.
The problem for the U.K. is, as Hague alluded to after his meetings with members of the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), as well as individuals aligned with neither group, is that the Syrian opposition isn’t in any fit state to fill the vacuum if Assad is removed from power. Worse still, privately the government fears such a disunited opposition runs the risk of jeopardizing the goal of overthrowing Assad’s regime.
Unlike the Libyan opposition, which was based in eastern Libya, Syria’s opposition is spread across the Middle East, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom. The SNC includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Turkish military intervention to overthrow Assad. The Brotherhood has a very different vision of a post-Assad Syria than others in the SNC. The NCC still favors talks with the Assad regime. And the hastily formed Free Syrian Army, composed of army deserters whose leader has been given refuge in Turkey, wants to be recognized as the military wing of the opposition, something the SNC won’t countenance.
Meanwhile Syria’s Kurdish population is understandably wary about Turkey’s increasingly high-profile involvement in the current turmoil. Ankara’s denunciations of the Assad regime are growing more bellicose, and there is speculation that Turkey will send troops into Syria to create a buffer zone for those fleeing the continuing violence.
Kurdish groups have also held meetings with representatives of the British government and warned that any military intervention by Turkey is likely to result in Kurds taking up arms to oppose them. Whether Turkey, whose president, Abdullah Gul, visited London this week, wants to become involved in military action is a moot point. But Ankara’s criticism of Assad is getting close to fever pitch. Earlier this week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Assad to Adolph Hitler.
Any armed confrontation with Turkey could play into Assad’s hands. However, as the situation grows ever more violent, Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, fear that Syria’s continuing instability will spread across the region if decisive action is not taken soon.
It remains to be seen what the Arab League will decide to do after its suspension of Syria’s membership in the organization. The United Nations will not repeat its actions in Libya. Much as the United States, France and the U.K. – not to mention Saudi Arabia – would like a pro-Western Syria to act as a counterweight to Iran, the West has firmly ruled out military action or no-fly zones in a country of much greater global strategic importance and sensitivity than Libya.
As one British government insider succinctly put it: “There is a lot at stake here, but ultimately the opposition needs to get its act together, look beyond their own egos and aims, and consider the needs of the Syrian people.” Like Assad, it appears the West has no Plan B.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star