Two years on, they are still haggling over the name. An Arab spring? Springs are seasonal, and tumultuous though transitional government is, what they have in Egypt and Tunisia is a long way away from an Arab winter. If the wave of revolt sweeping across the postcolonial borders of the Arab world looks as irreversible as the one that brought down the Soviet empire, revolution does not fit the bill either.
Revolutions topple monarchs. This one has gone through republican dictators like a dose of salts but has yet to have the same effect on the royal families of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, although of course the royal households are rightly petrified that it still will. How about the Arab awakening? Few words can do justice to the street battles of Syria, where 150 to 200 people, most of them civilians, die each day, but awakening is not one of them. This needs a label as brutal and as clinical as the daily trade of aerial bombardment and suicide bombings. An ethno-sectarian conflict?
Words matter. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tore into the UN, and by implication Russia, which wields the veto at the security council, for not intervening in Syria at a conference in Istanbul on Saturday. In Bosnia, he said, the UN claimed it did not know what was going on, but in Syria they lack even this fig leaf.
However, the same conference, the Istanbul World Forum, heard that if Syria follows the trajectory of other ethnic conflicts, Erdogan may be right to keep the rhetoric high, and the military response low. Turkey’s response to a series of border skirmishes with the Syrian army has been muted – at least by the standards of the Turkish army.
Steven Heydemann of the US Institute for Peace rattled off some stylised facts about ethno-sectarian conflicts: they last on average between four and four-and-a-half years; foreign intervention extends the life of a civil war by 156%. Where the conflict ends by one side winning militarily, the average number of deaths is 133,000, as opposed to 86,000 if the conflict is concluded by negotiation. Most of the countries that have gone through civil war relapse into violence. And a transition to democracy is least likely to be final.
The conclusion is bleak. If Syria follows this path, the 33,000 deaths it has so far caused may just be the start of what is to come. Heydemann’s logic isn’t necessarily anti-intervention. If you look at the 70% of the Syrian countryside that is liberated from government control, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is already happening and the longer this conflict goes on, he argues, the more pressure Obama will come under to protect this part of the Syrian population which is vulnerable from the air.
What emerges loud and clear from Istanbul is that toppling Assad is not the problem. With the right weapons, it could be over in two months. It’s the makeup and allegiance of the post-Assad government that Syria’s regional neighbours are really fighting for. The proxy war being waged in Syria is a battle not for Syrians, but for regional control. The Iran government tells their Turkish counterparts every time they meet that they hate what Assad is doing to his people, but the bottom line is that Iran wants access to and influence over the government that replaces it.
For Assad’s other backer, Vladimir Putin, Syria is a rerun of Chechnya pure and simple. Putin has a strong stomach for civilian deaths. Over 200,000 are thought to have died in Russia’s brutal suppression of that conflict (which still rumbles on in Dagestan and Ingushetia), but he is petrified of how a victory of Sunni Islamic militants in Syria could radicalise southern Russia’s soft Muslim underbelly.
Putin may or may not be right to say that we don’t know who the opposition in Syria really is. But the bottom line is, it’s Russia he is thinking of, not his country’s plummeting reputation in a reshaped Arab world.
Russia’s support for a dying regime bemuses senior Turkish officials.”What is Russia afraid of losing in Assad?” one of them asked. But in downing a Syrian plane full of Russian military parts – they were communication components for the air defence system Russia has supplied Assad with – Erdogan is playing a game of chicken with Putin. Each knows that their own set of bilateral interests in the Caucasus is too important to sacrifice on the altar of Syria.
As for the other side, the Saudis are past masters at using other countries to fight their war with Iran for them. Syria is little different to Iraq in this respect. For Turkey, which tried for six months to use its soft power to persuade Assad to reform, the Syrian conflict presents a series of hard power challenges. It allows ammunition over its Syrian border, but not heavy weapons. Enough to keep the insurgents in business, but not enough for victory. It will not do anything unilaterally, particularly as there is little appetite for intervention at home. Quite the opposite. And it too wants to keep a line to Iran open.
The last word should have gone to the Syrian opposition, except that not one but two organisations turned up to the conference in Istanbul. Abdulbaset Sieda, president of the Syrian National Council sat alongside Abdulhakim Bashar, secretary general of the Kurdish National Council, whose organisation still refuses to come under the SNC umbrella. Sieda presented Syria as a multi-ethnic haven until the Ba’athists seized power 50 years ago. He spoke of the need for a national dialogue, of a written contract guaranteeing the rights of every Syrian regardless of creed. He was fulsome about the Kurds, and less than convincing about everything. Bashar, who is holding firm to a federalist future for Syria, said that toppling the regime was less of a problem than what would replace it. He may be right.