By Claude Salhani –
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s advice to participants of the 12th Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, this Thursday and Friday, was never try to predict the future in the Middle East.
However, one prediction that is quite safe to make is the outcome of the next presidential election in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad announced last week that presidential elections are going to be held next June in the war-ravaged country. As the Israeli politician pointed out, making predictions in the Middle East is never a simple task, but in this case it is an easy prediction to make. This is not going to be a cliffhanger, by any means. President Bashar Assad will run and will win.
The first observation one may make is that any election held at this point in time is likely to be an even bigger sham than the traditional elections held to date when the incumbent – the only candidate by the way – receives 99.9 percent of the vote.
With most of Syria’s major cities in utter ruins, — Homs, Hamma, Aleppo now a sad shadow of what they were just three years ago – and the state’s infrastructure in shambles, just how would the government go about holding elections when it controls about half of the country, at best. True, the forces loyal to the regime in Damascus are making gains and for the first time since the start of the conflict it appears as though Mr. Assad may have weathered the worst part of the storm.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite militia, whose fighters have played a big role in helping the Syrian president overcome his opponents, declared in a speech in Beirut a couple of weeks ago that “President Assad was out of danger.”
However, that is far from being the end of the story. So what does this all mean for the Syrian people?
Most political prognostics for Syria’s immediate future are not good. Analysts who are familiar with the situation and knowledgeable about the country’s recent history predict that the conflict is unlikely to end any time soon. The Sunni opposition, even weakened, is not about to lay down their arms and surrender. Fact of the matter: surrender is not an option for either side. As the world witnessed during these past three years, prisoners of war are not usually well treated in Syria, to say the least. It would appear that the Geneva Conventions never made it to Syria.
There have been scathing reports of torture on both sides. Prisoners have been starved, beaten, burned, dragged through city streets, knifed to death and had their eyes gouged. Entire neighborhoods have been decimated. The level of violence in this conflict surpasses those of the 12 other conflicts that this reporter has covered during the past 40 years working in the Middle East.
The best that one canhope for is for that much like the 15-year civil war that was fought in neighboring Lebanon, with periodic outbreaks of peace interrupting the violence, the same is very likely to happen in Syria.
Part of the problem as far as the West is concerned is that there are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where the rulers have given in to the demands from the street.
Anything or anyone in disagreement with the Assad regime is labeled a terrorist. What began as peaceful demands from the people for a greater say in the way they are ruled was met with harsh repressive action and the torture of teenagers, followed by threats that next time they would go after their women.
On the flip side the opposition is comprised of a loose coalition of a multitude of diverse groups, including many Islamists who want to turn Syria into an Islamic state and govern it under Islamic law. The presence of these groups is most likely the major reason why the United States has been so reluctant to provide military assistance and/or equipment on a level that would allow the opposition to mark serious points in the war. The West has allowed just enough munitions and weapons to keep the opposition in the fight but not enough to actually win the war. In that respect Afghanistan has been a learning curve for the U.S. intelligence and military communities.
No one really wants the rebels to ose but at the same time no one wants to see them win either. What is currently happening in Syria is perhaps the best option for the West, that is. Keep Syria busy settling internal disputes and keep all the jihadis from around the world flocking to Syria where they can be monitored and to a certain degree, controlled and where many will be killed in the war.
What is happening in Syria today in very similar to what happened in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was headquartered in the Lebanese capital and leftists from around the world, from Ireland to Bangkok flocked to the PLO training camps to help fight the common enemy of the international left; imperialism, capitalism and Zionism.
Today the face of the revolution has changed. It is no longer the PLO camps but the Islamist camps and the left wingers have been replaced by Islamists.
A word of caution to those who think they will succeed in containing the situation. They cannot and they will not. The Syrian civil war, unless stopped, will eventually ooze over its borders and will affect Syria’s neighbors: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, where to date, more than a million refugees are now sitting out the war.
If they are to remain in Lebanon it will only be a matter of time before they follow the Palestinian example and begin to arm themselves. The Lebanese may see them as a mixed blessing, depending on which branch of Islam one belongs. Lebanon’s Sunnis, who see their power base eroded by the Shia community, will welcome them. The Shia however will see the Syrians as a threat. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.
Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani