A peaceful protest in Hama, July 22, 2011.

The Syrian Revolution is the first major popular revolution of the 21st Century. Like most popular revolutions, the erstwhile ideals of its early leaders, a group of secular nonviolence activists, were soon set aside as the violent crackdown unleashed by the Assad regime, with the support of its regional and international backers, most notably Iran and Russia, produced a similar violent backlash among its opponents. Consequently, the country was plunged into a civil war in which various regional and international players cultivated their proxies along sectarian and ideological lines. The indifference of the international community and the unwillingness of major powers to push for a quick political solution, or to at least back moderate rebels at a time when they formed the majority of rebel fighters, have called into question the very legal and intellectual foundations of the new global order that seemed to be emerging following the end of the Cold War and the formulation of such legal doctrine as the Responsibility to Protect. The Syrian Civil War has so far claimed close to 250,000 deaths by conservative estimates, dislocated more than half the country’s population of 23 million, with an estimated 5 million becoming refugees in neighboring countries and the European Union, and destroyed the majority of the country’s infrastructure. The result is the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st Century, so far.

Finitiatives |

Ammar Abulhamid writes:

Not too long ago, Assad issued a “Finitiative,” that is, an initiative to end all initiatives, calling, allegedly, for dialogue with the opposition. Now, opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib has repaid Assad in kind by issuing his own “Finitiative” calling, purportedly, for dialogue with the regime. Both finitiatives were clearly designed for purposes other than those declared and were meant primarily as acts of continued defiance, even if some failed to detect the defiance involved in Alkhatib’s finitiative

….Assad’s finitiative was meant to rally troops and consolidate support and control rather than enter into any real dialogue with the opposition, Alkhatib’s came as a revolutionary act meant to break a political stalemate in the ranks of the international community and to push for a real policy to help resolve the situation in Syria in a way commensurate with the expectation of the majority of average Syrians from all communal and political backgrounds. Assad’s finitiative was, then, a defensive act, a last stand of sorts. But Alkhatib’s finitiative marked the opposition’s first real offensive on the political front.

This makes a lot of good sense to me as an interpretation of what is happening, but Khatib’s challenge is greater than Asad’s:  to hold the opposition together as he undertakes his “finitiative.”  The regime, so far at least, has had relatively little difficulty maintaining cohesion, at least at its core.  The cracks are many.  But I’ve seen some ancient vases with a lot of cracks and no real breaks.

The opposition seems less intact, because it never was united.  Khatib’s initiative took at least some people by surprise, which is not a good way of maintaining support from people who might already be less inclined than desirable to follow your lead.  It is still not clear whether Khatib’s move will weaken or strengthen his position, but the uncertainty is itself debilitating.

As for the international community, it still looks unlikely that a breakthrough is imminent.  Despite much chest beating, Washington seems as committed as ever to not taking military action.  The Russians and Iranians seem wedded to Bashar, even if they claim it isn’t true.  Brahimi is active, but so far to no good effect.

The war drags on, with something like 200 civilians killed each day.  Atrocities are documented but not prevented.  The regime is still able to use its air force to disrupt areas outside its control.  The revolutionaries are likewise able to strike in Damascus and other areas of regime dominance.  Fatigue–absolutely vital to the “mutually hurting stalemate” that opens up the possibility of successful negotiation–is setting in for many.  But neither the regime nor the most avid of the revolutionaries appears to have concluded that they can gain more by talking than by fighting.

A lot of people in the middle concluded that long ago.  The Khatib and Asad initiatives are designed to appeal to them.  But it is the guys with guns who get to determine what happens.  They still seem content to battle on.

© 2013, Ammar Abdulhamid. All rights reserved.