On a regional front, the Syrian issue is complicated by a group of countries that continue to staunchly support Bashar al-Assad’s crumbling regime.
Syria is in many ways different to the countries that have succumbed to the tides of the Arab revolution. Syria finds itself at the heart of the Middle East and its numerous hotspots. It is a fulcrum for activities and tensions in Israel, Lebanon and Palestine, a proxy for Iran’s regional ambitions and power mongering, and with an inadvertent hand in the PKK conflict.
This is underpinned by the fact that Syria is a Sunni majority ruled by an Alawite minority. Such are the high stakes in Syria that almost no country in the region has remained silent one way or another as each aims to preserve their sectarian, economic or strategic interests. The predominantly Sunni-based Arab League has been at the forefront of rhetoric against Assad and the galvanization of the resistance in Syria.
Where now for the struggle?
After 11 months of a humanitarian crisis and protests in Syria, those who oppose Assad need to match words with more determined actions. A common UN Security Council resolution is looking as unlikely as ever, and sooner or later, the powers that are in favor of strong action must decide their next move.
Rhetoric and sanctions only have a limited affect, and regionalpowers cannot remain content on indirect actions indefinitely. The growing humanitarian crisis as Assad continues to pound rebel cities is something that even Russia and China, who staunchly oppose military intervention, cannot ignore.
Assad’s regime has reached a point of no return, and in spite of empty gestures such as the upcoming referendum on a new constitution, the Syrian opposition and regional countries opposed to Assad have come too far in the conflict to let the uprising subside and allow Assad to continue in power.
At the current time, the anti-government forces lack the firepower or territorial advantages that Libyan rebels were able to enjoy. It is commonly overlooked that even though the Libyan opposition had far greater strength than the one in Syria today, only an Allied intervention prevented a mass slaughter in Benghazi as the government forces blew the gates down.
Even then, only weeks of fierce bombardment of Gaddafi forces finally broke the back of the government.
The probable way forward in Syria is now a full blown civil war. Foreign military intervention endorsed by a UN resolution may not happen, but nor will a passive observation of Syria. As the Arab League and supporters of the Syrian uprising continue to apply pressure at the UN, the Arab forces in the region may well find themselves in a position of having to directly thwart Assad in Syria. They may well arrive under the pretext of a peace-keeping force, but their end game is obvious. Some countries are already involved in supplying of arms to rebel forces, and in the short term this will increase.
A “human corridor” that is being seriously discussed as a compromise at the UN may have a two-fold benefit. It provides relieffor the besieged population and also affords breathing space for the rebels,allowing them to regroup and consolidate power.
An intensification of the military conflict threatens to deepen the regional divide, as Iraq, Iran and even Russia may up their support in preserving Assad’s regime.
The Kurdish card in Syria
If the Arabs in Syria thought they had it bad, one must spare a thought for the much repressed Kurdish population. Arabs may have lacked some rights and privileges, but in the case of thousands of Kurds there were literally no rights and condemnation to a state of non-existence.
The Kurdish plight under the hands of Damascus has been largely ignored over the years while Arab nationalism assumed its course. Now regional countries flock to protect a besieged population in Syria under humanitarian grounds.
Ironically, the Kurds have largely taken a backroom role in the conflict owed to a deep mistrust of the Arab opposition groups and Turkey’s long-term plans for Syria. Damascus has attempted to manipulate Arab fears of Kurdish separatism and at the same time Kurdish fears of Arab nationalism.
Turkey has been at the forefront of regional attempts to isolate and punish the Syrian regime while Assad has in return increased support of the PKK to preserve his regional leverage.
The Kurdish opposition groups themselves are divided between various loyalties, and without a united front they may well miss the revolutionary tide and with it an opportunity to play a strong part in the reshaping of Syria.
In this regard, the Kurdistan Regional Government needs to play a strong part in uniting and supporting the Kurdish groups in Syria while at the same time becoming a significant actor in the overall regional quest to oust Assad.
Baghdad may support Syria, but Kurdistan is no Iraq. The Kurdistan Region cannot stay idle to any regional upheaval, and with its growing power in the greater region it can successfully play a strong, strategic role in the new Middle East.
Gone are the days when the Kurds were bystanders as other powers decided their destiny. As one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East, the Kurds can be at the forefront of the new destiny of the Middle East.
As for Syrian Kurds numbering over 2 million people, they are hardly a small pawn on the post-Assad negotiating table. They must be unequivocal in their demand for federalism and equal rights or threaten to go their own way. Kurds must no longer accept second best, due to threat of regional powers working to dilute Kurdish nationalism.
It would be most ironic if Arab powers and Turkey liberated Syria, and then launched a crackdown on Kurdish nationalism in a new Syria only because Kurds wanted to enjoy their legal entitlement to autonomy.
The leaders of Kurdistan must work side by side to guide the Syrian Kurds. The majority of Syrian Kurds look to the Kurdistan Region as a big brother and their guardians.
The Kurdish opposition conference in Erbil last month was a largely welcome step. It displayed national solidarity and demonstrated that Kurds are no longer oblivious to cross-border struggles of their brothers. Such manoeuvres must intensify for the good of all Kurdistan. The Kurds may have been divided against their will by force, but no one can prevent unity in heart and spirit.