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External powers hijack Syrian calls for regime change

Mar 14,2018 - Last updated at Mar 14,2018

Seven years ago today, activists inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt protested in Damascus and other Syrian cities, calling for democratic reforms. The demonstrations were dispersed by the security forces, and a number of protesters were detained. The protests followed sporadic unrest that erupted in January in northern Kurdish communities and spread to other areas.

On March 6, 15 teenagers were detained for writing on walls in the city of Deraa, "The people want the fall of the regime", the slogan launched world-wide by the Egyptian uprising. That day, protests began against the imprisonment of the boys. On Friday the 18, there were demonstrations across the country and on Monday 20, demonstrators bore arms in Deraa, seven policemen were killed and a court house and the ruling Baath Party headquarters were torched. The Omari mosque in Deraa became the core of the town's revolt.

Demonstrations against and for the government continued into April when Turkey put pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to carry out reforms. At the same time, Ankara recruited defected Syrian army officers to form the Free Syrian Army, and established the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated expatriate Syrian National Council. Secular opposition activists organised in London and Paris.

August was a decisive month. On the 18th, US President Barack Obama declared that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside".  He had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Turkey, the US, Germany and France became the backbone of the effort to overthrow Assad, while Russia and Iran provided limited support that increased over the years.

The situation in Syria was, however, very different from conditions in Tunisia and Egypt, where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were ousted. Ben Ali fled Tunis on January 14 after weeks of widespread unrest and a takeover by an interim government under Muhammad Ghannouchi, a Ben Ali appointee who lasted just a few weeks. 

While Ben Ali was brought down by Tunisia's political elite seeking, in vain, to perpetuate its rule, Mubarak was removed by the military, where he had served as air force chief. Egypt's demonstrations were far larger and more dramatic than those in Tunisia. The generals used the protests to get rid of Mubarak because he had groomed his son, Gamal, to succeed him, a move rejected by the military.

Assad's case could not be compared to those of Ben Ali and Mubarak. He retained the support of the army and security forces as well as merchants, civil servants and the weak but still influential Baath Party. Protests were far smaller than in Egypt, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two largest cities. Guns, absent in Tunisia and Egypt, appeared within days during protests in Deraa.

Since it became clear that neither the people power nor the military would topple Assad, his enemies opted for war. External antagonists armed and paid local groups to fight the government. Turkey funnelled tens of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria, the majority of them “takfiris”. The eastern quarters of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, fell to a loose coalition of rebels and fundamentalists in 2012, while Damascus' suburbs were taken over by armed groups based either in the countryside or poor districts of the capital.

Until Daesh fighters streamed captured Iraq's second city Mosul in June 2014, the Western powers and their allies ignored the most extreme takfiris, who had seized and subdued the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraqi towns of Ramadi, Falluja and Tikrit.

In March 2015, an authoritative foreign source based in Damascus told this correspondent that he expected the government to reestablish its control in most of the country by year's end. This did not happen because of large-scale Saudi and Qatari arms deliveries to takfiri groups, which seized the north-western province of Idlib and launched offensive operations elsewhere.

Assad's ally, Russia, belatedly deployed war planes to provide cover for operations by the over-stretched Syrian army, while Iran stepped up the supply of reinforcements. The rout of the armed groups from eastern Aleppo in December 2015 was a major turningpoint in the struggle to defeat the insurgency, and should have led to a Syrian army campaign to drive Daesh from Raqqa and Deir Azzor.

This was pre-empted by the US and its Kurdish allies, which not only drove Daesh from the city of Raqqa, but also captured large tracts of territory in the province of the same name as well as in Deir Azzor province, issuing a fresh challenge to the government.

In response to the rise of the US-sponsored Kurds, Turkey, which regards them as "terrorists" since they are allied to Turkey's insurgent Kurds, has invaded and taken territory in the north and is currently fighting the Kurds in the north-west Afrin enclave. Ankara's aim is to ethnically cleanse the area of its majority Kurdish population and introduce Syrian Arab refugees living in Turkey.

During these bloody and devastating seven years, more than 350,000 have been killed — 110,000 civilians and the rest combatants from both government and insurgent forces. Half of the country's 23 million people have been uprooted; five million have fled Syria. Homs, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus and many towns and villages have been devastated. Today, the government holds about 60 per cent of Syria's territory, where 80-85 per cent of Syrians remaining in the country now live. The regime remains secular in spite of the efforts of takfiris and their allies to transform Syria into a takfiri state.

The war for Syria is not over due to spoilers who are determined to keep the conflict going. The conflict remains a struggle for the very existence of Syria, as a state and as the homeland of all the Syrian people: Muslims, Christians, Druze and Kurds.

The existence of Tunisia and Egypt were never the issue when protests began in 2011; regime change was the name of the game. Syrian calls for regime change have been hijacked by expatriate dissidents and external powers for their own ends. Syria and its people have paid a high price.

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