Let’s first get something out of the way: the Syrian regime is one of the nastier ones in the world, and even by the nasty standards of the Middle East, it excels in its oppressive paranoia. It is thus not at all surprising that a large number of Syrians would rebel against a cliquish government that, just as in neighbouring Iraq in years past, is largely built on the loyalty of a religious minority (in this case, the Alawite one). But the Middle East being what it is, nothing is as it seems at first sight, and one must ask oneself: is the outrage heard in Western and Middle Eastern capitals truly one born out of a bleeding-heart concern for democracy? With absolutist Gulf monarchies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia clamouring for democratisation and human rights, there is more than just a whiff of hypocrisy in the air.
First, there is the Syrian opposition: even by the dismal standards of Middle Eastern opposition movements, it is woefully divided. An array of groups each have their own particular constituencies and programmes, and have so far failed to unite within one single umbrella organisation capable of clearly laying out a path for a post-Assad Syria. And this is particularly troubling in view of Syria’s sectarian divides; without a clear commitment of these groups to some kind of blueprint for the future that respects minority rights, the danger is for this anti-Assad uprising to eventually morph into a witch-hunt against the Alawites and the numerous non-Sunni minorities that make up 25-30% of the country’s population.
Second, it is far from clear that this is a clear-cut case of the ‘Syrian people’ rising against an oppressive regime. Assad and his acolytes do have the support of a still-significant proportion of the Syrian population; the reliance by Western media and politicians on claims by the opposition that pro-government protesters are somehow ‘forced’ to attend the rallies in support of Assad are rather facile - they would claim that as the opposition, wouldn’t they? Assad is not Gaddafi; he has an efficient, well-armed and -disciplined security apparatus behind him, and is not about to fall from power, as pointed out by as consummate an observer of the Middle East as Robert Fisk. In the range of possible outcomes, democracy will have to contend with either a massacre of the opposition by the regime, or a protracted civil war, or a massacre of the Alawites and other minorities by the opposition. Taking sides in this war amounts to one gigantic wager with the lives of additional thousands.
The real issue here is not democracy or the human rights of the Syrians. This is not what this particular wager can be about; considering the risks, the reward must be something much more incentivising to the West. And this is where Syria’s Iranian connections come in: it would be strategically foolish for Western powers not to use this opportunity to pry away the Islamic Republic’s main ally in the Levant, its conduit for arms to one of its principal deterrents against Israel (Hezbollah). Prying away Syria would deprive Tehran of a major retaliatory weapon if military action against it is imminent, or limit its ability to 'create mischief' behind a nuclear shield if it nuclearises. As so often in international affairs, it is the hard realities of politics, not the bleeding hearts of politicians, that are behind a clamouring for humaneness that was so absent in the case of, say, Bahrain. Too bad if the wager results in the disintegration of Syria, or a massacre of the opposition or the pro-government camp.