Many international affairs specialists and diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, are now saying openly that the fighting in Syria is drawing to a close and that the overthrow of the regime could happen any time. There is also talk that the countries to which Bashar al-Assad might escape and his entourage will not permit him to do so, indeed there are even claims that his immediate bodyguards will kill him.
Whichever way one looks at things, there can be no talk of any kind of hopeful future for Assad. It is exactly as a group of international intellectuals, including Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, warned Assad in a public letter: He seems to be approaching a tragic final act, similar to that of Gadhafi.
However the real issue is how deep a trauma there will be for the Syrian people to confront as they cling to life after Assad.
A second Iraq?
The way in which large numbers of people lose their lives in the rubble when the collapse of a regime has not been correctly managed was experienced previously in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein, and the state that was embodied in his person, were liquidated together with all institutions, the military, the police, and the intelligence service, and chaos was ushered in. The Americans pulled down the Firdos Square statue of Saddam with great excitement, but very soon afterward they appreciated that their expectations when they won the war were simply mistaken.
After hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of people have died, Iraq is still a country in danger of breaking up and enmeshed in internal conflicts.
Unlike Iraq, Syria has not suffered occupation by a foreign power but the fighting that has taken place for so long in the country has intensified the fury different groups feel toward each other. So even though the prospects for Syria after Assad are very different from those in Iraq, it looks as if it will be very difficult to come up with a successful compromise in the Syrian case.
First and foremost, the Syrian opposition coalition needs to be able to turn its talk of embracing the whole of society into reality, and for that to happen it needs to have the means and the ability to reconstruct a disciplined security force and judicial system.
Second, although the Friends of Syria Group is right to say that the future of Syria must be determined by the people of Syria, it cannot be said that the Syrian opposition has a well-planned design for the future of the country. An important mistake in Iraq was the policy of punishing the Sunni Arabs, a policy which has exacted a high price in terms of instability. A similar scenario must not be allowed in Syria.
Another problem is recognition – the tendency of the coalition of countries supporting the opposition to try eliminate extremist groups that might cause instability in the country and label them as terrorist organizations. At the very least, the U.S., Britain, and Germany display an inclination to do this.
The latest statement from Russia, a country which has up to now followed the mistaken position of siding with the Assad regime, is of great importance: Its real anxiety over Syria concerns the future of the country, and not for the position of Assad. If President Putin’s words are sincere, then he should do what he can to minimize the suffering of the Syrian people and begin by lifting his country’s veto of the U.N. Resolution.
The risk of ‘Afghanistanization’ in Syria
As long as this situation remains, it is extremely important at meetings where work on a settlement continues for the country’s real friends to explain in a clear, direct, and transparent fashion what sort of Syria they envisage constructing, how to enable everyone involved to join forces, and particularly how to stop time being wasted.
One of the most important aspects here is that during the transitional period terrorist groups might get hold of the weapons now in the hands of the regime.
The most dangerous scenario is the intensified political polarization together with the weaponry in the hands of the regime creating the setting for irregular warfare. This scenario brings to mind the precedent of Afghanistan in the 1990s and consequently international public opinion. First and foremost Turkey wants to totally eliminate the risk of Afghanistanization in Syria. But making this happen is not going to be easy. When regime changes happen, the number of mistakes and unforeseen events is always much higher than people predict.
*This article was first published in HaberTürk newspaper on December 22, 2012.