Back in 1989, when the communist regimes of Europe were tottering toward their end, almost every day somebody would say, “There’s going to be a civil war.” And our job, as foreign journalists who allegedly had our finger on the pulse of events, was to say: “No, there won’t be.”
So most of us did say that, as if we actually knew. But the locals were pathetically grateful, and we turned out to be right.
It was just the same in South Africa in 1993-94. Another nonviolent revolution was taking on another dictatorship with a long record of brutality, and once again most people who had lived their lives under its rule were convinced there would be a civil war. So we foreign journalists reassured them that there wouldn’t be, and again we turned out to be right.
Now it’s Syria’s turn, and yet again most who live there fear their nonviolent revolution will end in civil war. It’s not my job to reassure them this time, because like most foreign journalists I can’t even get into the country, but in any case I would have no reassurance to offer. This time, it may well end in civil war. Like Iraq.
The Assad dynasty in Syria is neither better nor worse than Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq. They had identical origins, as local branches of the same pan-Arab political movement, the Baath Party. They both depended on Baathist minorities for their core support.
They were both ruthless in crushing threats to their power. Hafez al-Assad’s troops killed up to 40,000 people in Hama when Sunni Islamists rebelled in Syria in 1982, Saddam Hussein’s army killed at least as many Shias in southern Iraq when they rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War and both regimes were systematically beastly to their local Kurds.
When the American invaders destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, however, what ensued was not peace, prosperity and democracy. It was a brutal civil war that ended with Baghdad almost entirely cleansed of its Sunni Muslim population and the whole country cleansed of its Christian minority. Only the Kurds, insulated by their own battle-hardened army and their mountains, avoided the carnage.
So if the Baathist regime in Syria is driven from power, why should we believe that what follows will be any better than it was in Iraq? The country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions are just as deep and complex as Iraq’s, and although nonviolent protest continues to be the main weapon of the pro-democracy movement, there is now also violent resistance to the regime’s attacks on the population.
Time is running out in Syria. The revolutionaries struggle to keep their movement inclusive and nonviolent, but people are retreating into their narrow ethnic and religious identities and resistance is turning violent. The most vulnerable minorities, like the Christians, are starting to think about flight.
If it goes wrong in Syria, it could be almost as bad as the civil war that raged next door in Lebanon for 15 years: massacres, refugees, devastation. Perhaps nothing short of foreign intervention on behalf of the revolutionaries can stop it now, for otherwise the regime will fight on until the country is destroyed.
Help has to come from outside, and it’s hard to imagine that happening. NATO certainly won’t take this one on: Syria has four times Libya’s population and quite serious armed forces. Nonmilitary intervention in the form of trade embargoes and the like is unlikely to work in time, even if the rest of the world could agree on it.
There is already foreign intervention in Syria, of course, but on the wrong side. The Shia regimes in Iran and Iraq are already giving material support to the Baathist regime in Syria. And there is no point in hoping for timely concessions from President Bashar al-Assad, son of the late, great dictator: he is effectively the prisoner of the Alawite elite.
The Syrian revolutionaries are on their own. They will probably bring down the Baathists in the end, but by then the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the revolt may well have triggered the civil war that everybody fears. Another six months like the last six months and it will be all but inevitable.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.