With the ubiquitous global terrorist threat and in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, one of the countries placed directly in the spotlight is Syria. This spotlight was magnified further in recent weeks by a new UN resolution designed to further pressure the government by calling for an independent inquiry into the alleged assassination of the popular anti-Syrian former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Long present on the infamous axis-of-evil, Syria’s policies and authoritarian grip on society were perhaps only over-shadowed by the now ousted regime of Saddam Hussein. Such dictatorial grip and lack of democratic freedoms are perhaps reasons enough for reforms and change, but new events have provided even more ammunition.
Alleged cross-border Syrian support for insurgents in Iraq, the aforementioned assassination of Hariri and general hostility towards the US and Israel has propelled its status as the next country on the radar for greater Middle Eastern change under US hegemony. This has placed Syria into a difficult position, with the might of the US military on its right and the ever-present Israeli threat on its left.
Perhaps, along with events in Iraq propelling Iraqi Kurds to greater prominence and recognition, another crucial factor and potential pawn on the US chessboard is the long forgotten and disenfranchised Syrian Kurdish population. A population who seemingly has acquired new found confidence and inspiration to demand greater recognition and change, without fear of government reprisals, common in the past. This has pushed the 2.5 million or so Kurds, many of whom are stateless and deprived of common state services, into the foreground. Increased coverage of Syrian Kurdish issues appear to tie in nicely with US views on Syria and provides a potential wildcard.
The threat of opposition domestically has often been lacking, or never materialised, as Syria’s diverse but apparently fractious opposition has often bickered and posed no real threat to the autocratic power grip of the Arab nationalist Baath Party. Yet with the ever-growing isolation of Syria in the international arena and with the threat of military actions and economic sanctions, the opposition parties have found a new lease of life.
The new impetuous to unite and propose a more effective message to the government recently resulted in the signing of the Damascus Declaration by a dozen or so groups; it has been put together to further pressure Bashar al-Assad's regime for political reforms and a new, more encompassing and liberalised constitution. The government has long attempted to drive a wedge between Syrian Kurdish and Arab opposition parties using the Arab nationalistic wildcard and the image of Kurds as separatists. However, the new-found prominence of the Kurds in the region means that the carrot-and-stick approach to the Syrian Kurdish question may no longer work.
The long impoverished Syrian Kurdish area, predominantly in North-Eastern Syria, has recently witnessed well-documented uprisings and ethnic violence and pro-US demonstrations, bringing their plight to the international media.
Promised economic and political reforms since Bashar al-Assad's sudden rise to power in 2000 - as a result of his father’s death - have never materialised in reality. Some 300,000 stateless Kurds classified as foreigners still exist with no access to state health, education or facilities and unable to travel. The recent Baath Party congress promised to resolve this situation along with loosening of the political noose around non-Baathist parties.
Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but has lived through periods of political instability due largely to the conflicting interests of its various groups.
Since then, Syria’s political position has been colourful, to say the least, resulting in periods of political instability, due largely to varying interests in its political and social spectrum. Its political stance has led to many years of neo-military occupation in Lebanon, from where it only recently pulled out its forces under intense international pressure, after the assassination of Hariri. Such events, coupled with its historic bitterness towards Israel and its support and harbouring of Islamic militant groups, have resulted in sporadic conflicts between the two nations.
However, Syria now only needs to look across its shoulder at the new democratic and liberal Iraq which undertook its third elections in December alone. the Syrian government's ability to counter power by force, intimidation and trepidation may now backfire as its diverse community may now no longer fear a backlash to demands for greater change and a say on Syria's destiny.
The UN resolution on Syria, although primarily focused on the need for an internal inquiry into the death of Hariri, was also a veiled threat of not only economic sanctions but “further action” if co-operation was not undertaken. These could also concern, perhaps, taking firmer action on insurgents in Syria and introducing political reforms.
With its hands tied by Afghanistan and especially across the border in Iraq, presumably the US is not in a position to dictate regime change. A general change of mindset and behaviour is advocated. This does not mean the US would not welcome regime change. With heightened international pressure and the new-found unity of Syrian opposition groups, the US may have more than a great military arsenal in its quest to oust the current regime.