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West must halt sectarian slide

Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia’s support for President Bashar Assad as they burn a banner depicting Assad, his brother Maher Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Lebanese port city of Sidon last month.

Associated Press

Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia’s support for President Bashar Assad as they burn a banner depicting Assad, his brother Maher Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Lebanese port city of Sidon last month.

Ever since the uprising in Syria began more than 16 months ago, the regime of Bashar Assad has been on a downward spiral. Despite enjoying overwhelming military superiority against a loosely coordinated and under-armed Free Syrian Army, Assad's cynical play on sectarian sentiments cost him control over considerable chunks of Syrian territory with the majority Sunni population.

Assad is an Alawite, and now it is only the majority Alawite areas along the coast that are now under his firm control. The rest of the country is joining the revolution.

Assad is trying to counter the trend by breaking up his key army divisions into brigades. Alongside the recently formed Alawite militias ("Shabiha"), these smaller units have been roaming every corner of the country on a fool's errand to quell the rebellion with excessive use of force. Still, the revolution continues to spread.

But instead of capitalizing on this revolutionary resilience, Syria's opposition groups remain deeply divided, unable to provide effective leadership to the revolutionary movement. Attempts to unite the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council failed due to lack of a coherent strategy and vision for the future of the country. Instead, the jubilation following the council's formation quickly gave way, first to frustration, then to indifference.

The U.S.-led Friends of Syria have expended considerable diplomatic and political energy to create more unity and structure within the SNC as well as the Free Syrian Army. But their efforts have come to naught. It is now clear that protest leaders and military commanders who have emerged on the ground will have to forge opposition unity and an efficient leadership structure.

The Annan plan, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, has failed. It was primarily designed to give the world leaders the ability to claim they were doing something while avoiding serious action. In reality, it only provided Assad with more time to continue killing.

The Obama administration also needed the Annan plan as a fig leaf. Facing a difficult re-election, the Obama administration is unwilling to risk alienating voters by so much as hinting at another war in the Middle East. Never mind that only three years earlier, in his Cairo speech, he referred to similar inaction in Bosnia 20 years ago as a "stain on our collective conscience."

Bottom line: Decisive action by the West is unlikely before the end of 2012. For all the pieties of "never again," the Western leaders seem to have learned little from places like Bosnia and Kosovo — both cases in which external application of force was essential.

Meanwhile, Assad has borrowed directly from the Slobodan Milosevic playbook. Recognizing that reasserting control over the entire country is a distant possibility, Assad is employing his military superiority to create a contiguous, homogenous piece of Syria along the coast, where Alawites are the majority, much like Milosevic did in 1992-95 when he created today's Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

Sunni majority neighborhoods in religiously mixed coastal cities of Tartous, Banyas, Jableh and Latakia are encircled and sealed off by loyalist forces. The mountainous regions along the coast are cleansed of their Sunni minority to turn them into an all-Alawite haven. Finally, the sectarian cleansing witnessed on a much larger scale in the plains of Hama, Homs and Idlib is intended to add what military planners call depth: a swath of territory completely cleansed or populated only by friendly elements, meant to keep the enemy away from the heartland.

Twenty years ago in Bosnia, the Yugoslav People's Army would encircle and shell non-Serb areas before paramilitary units were sent to do the dirty work of raping and murdering the civilian population. Similarly, the Syrian army uses its artillery to enervate restive communities before its Shabiha gangs — state-sanctioned paramilitary formations similar to the Serbian Arkan's Tigers — move in to murder women, men, children and the elderly.

Despite resorting to these tactics, Assad has not yet succeeded in transforming the conflict into a full-fledged civil war. Refusing to play into his hand, local protest leaders successfully curbed tendencies within the ranks of protesters to seek retribution. But unless the West acts decisively, these pressures could become irrepressible, with disastrous results for Syria, the region, and the Arab Awakening.

To avert a wider civil war and help ensure long-term democratic prosperity in Syria for all its citizens, the West also must learn from the Bosnia and Kosovo experience.

First, the West must recognize that Russia is unlikely to become part of the solution. Intervention under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council is unlikely; serious action on Syria can only take without its blessing. But as history has shown, there is no alternative to U.S. leadership in assembling a coalition. Air power must weaken and immobilize Assad's military, while logistical support to the revolutionaries on the ground must increase.

To alleviate Alawite and other minorities' fears and help to break Assad's grip on religious minorities, a convincing post-Assad visio of a multiethnic Syria must be communicated by the revolutionary elements in the country to their fellow citizens. Such a vision must have global backing to be seen as credible. It must also provide incentives for Kurdish, Druze, Christian and even Alawite communities to turn their backs on the murderous regime, such as pledges of development aid and political support — including security guarantees — in the post-Assad period.

A plural, democratic Syria is essential — and remains possible, just. The most diverse multiconfessional state in the Middle East, Syria is a bellwether for the region, much like Bosnia is in the western Balkans. Successful consolidation of territory through ethnic cleansing is bound to bring long-term instability to Syria and surrounding countries. Worse yet, should Syria be rent asunder, an era of sectarian warfare throughout the Middle East will unfold.

U.S. domestic politics emboldened Milosevic in both Bosnia and Kosovo; it is doing the same in Syria. To prevent Syria from becoming the new Bosnia, the West should apply its Balkan lessons before Assad finishes applying his. The United States must lead, lest it once again stain its collective conscience.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies. Reuf Bajrovic is a political consultant based in Washington, D.C. Kurt Bassuener is a Sarajevo-based political analyst with the Democratization Policy Council.

West must halt sectarian slide 06/30/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 5:30am]
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