Syrians feel caught in an external power struggle, less willing to confront their own

Syrians feel caught in a proxy power struggle among the US, Gulf states, China, and Russia – who all seem more concerned with their interests and less with democracy for all. This external fight is preventing Syrians from making vital decisions about their own internal challenges.

Anonymous/AP Photo
Civilians flee from fighting after Syrian Army tanks enter the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria Feb. 15.

*For security reasons, this writer could not be named.

Just as the world has been watching Syria, so are Syrians watching the world watch them.

They know the official statements of the international community must be taken with a large grain of salt. They know their stances on the situation in Syria are often shaped by proxy power struggles, rather than concern for freedom and democracy for everyone.

They know the United States and Gulf powers want to reduce Iran’s influence in the region. They know Russia and China vie for power with the US. They’re aware that Syria is seen as just another battleground between Sunnis and Shiites.

They watch the US take zealous stances in support of Syrian human rights at the UN Security Council, even knowing that the US easily vetoes resolutions against Israeli actions that trample on Palestinian human rights.

They hear Qatar and other Gulf countries express concern for the rights of Syrian protesters – who are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the Sunni majority – but are much less concerned with the rights of protesters in the Gulf – particularly those who are Shiite, and specifically in Bahrain.

Syrians are also cognizant of the reality that both the US and the Gulf countries are keen to seize the opportunity to weaken Iran by eliminating a regime in Syria that is seen as a lynchpin in the (so-called) Shiite Crescent, which in addition to Syria includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq.

They have listened to Russia and China fervently support the sovereignty of the Syrian regime in what they construe as a battle against terror. And they know that Russia just sold the Assad regime an order of warplanes to the tune of $550 million and that Chinese goods have flooded Syrian markets. Of course, they understand that Russia wants a foothold in the Middle East and that China has reason to kill off any kind of Security Council precedent that might come back to haunt it or embolden its own repressed peoples.

And most recently, they have heard the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, armed Sunni tribes in Iraq, and Al Qaeda calling on Muslims – read Sunnis – to assist Syrians in jihad against a godless and repressive regime. Syrians recognize that those invoking jihad or Sunni identity are much less interested in defeating an abusive regime than they are in destroying Syria’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic mosaic.

All of this has reduced the willingness of many Syrians to engage with the very serious decision making process that the majority of Syrians need to be undertaking at the moment.

In the major – and critical – cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the people have not witnessed the brutal assault on protestors in other parts of Syria. While their lives have been interrupted by a standstill economy and with shortages of water, electricity, gas, and diesel, violence and death are so far not rocking their days. Many lack a sense or urgency to move beyond being just passive observers, hoping this all blows over.

The fact that Syrians are concurrently seeing themselves as pawns in proxy power struggles helps many to justify that passivity, or justifies their backing of the regime for a bit longer. They don’t want to be played for all these other purposes.

This has led to some absurd scenes, such as some Syrians cheering the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN. Cheering for such a veto is analogous to what Syrians have always decried when it came to Israel and the US, the cynical use of the veto by a superpower willing to allow human rights violations for the sake of political and economic interests.

After 40 years of rule under the Assad family, whose regime has always used external threats to defer any internal reform, Syrians know well how to assume this sort of one-thing-at-a-time posture. They are less familiar with concurrently resisting both external muddling and internal repression.

Still, despite the doublespeak of other nations, the reality remains that Assad is a dictator. His clan survives at the expense of most Syrians, and doing so by violating human rights. Syrians must remain focused on that reality and not be distracted by the Janus-faced stances of many in the international community.

Those outside Syria genuinely interested in protecting civilians, ending the bloodshed, and facilitating Syrian self-determination would also do well to keep in mind that those inside Syria are much more than figurines to be shaken up for the sake of changing the landscape. 

For security reasons, this writer could not be named.

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