Mary Dejevsky: Watch, hope and plan – there is no more that outsiders can do

The tipping point is reached when people start to believe that the Syrian regime is doomed

Share

Whatever happened at the national security building in Damascus this week – something so cataclysmic that even the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad had to admit the loss of three members of its inner circle – it altered the balance of forces in Syria at a stroke. It prompted devil-may-care jubilation from sections of the opposition and a new tone of defensive flag-waving from the leadership.

It is that tone, quite as much as the attack on such an inner sanctum itself, that shows there can be no going back. And as the US defence secretary warned of Syria "spinning out of control", the Russian foreign minister spoke of a "decisive battle", and international news organisations modified their heading from "violence" to "civil war", it was clear that outside perceptions, too, had changed. All right, perhaps one opposition agent just struck lucky. It is not unheard of for luck to change the course of history.

If the situation was perilous before, however, it is many times more perilous now. Before Wednesday, it was possible to believe that there was time: time for the Russians to sign up to international sanctions; time for Assad to accept the inevitable; time for a fractious UN to cobble together some sort of political transition. But as the UN Secretary General called on Security Council members to "shoulder their responsibility and take... action with a sense of urgency", his unmistakeable meaning was that time was running out. Syria had reached its tipping point.

Identifying the precise moment when a regime reaches the point of no return is rarely simple. Consider how long it took the United States to cast off the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. Long-standing alliances and interests are hard to unpick, especially when there is no obvious alternative. In the end, Mubarak's fate was sealed by his own military, which essentially effected a coup d'état in favour of the disparate opposition.

It was just about possible to envisage a similar start to the transition in Syria, with the top brass summarily changing sides. But the decapitation of a part of Assad's defence structures could complicate even such a short-term remedy. If Syria's military now splits, pro- and anti-Assad groups may fight for power. Comparisons are already being made with the Balkans.

That prospect is one reason why the handwringing appeals for "the West" or the "international community" or, well, anyone, to intervene have grown more insistent – and why they still need to be resisted. Syria threatens to become very messy; even more than it already is. If the US, Russia and China take different sides, if Iran decides to stake a claim, too, the result could be the sort of proxy war that was mostly consigned to other continents during the Cold War. Other people's transitions are best viewed from the margins.

The way the US, Britain and others became bogged down, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, illustrates the perils of interfering in, or even triggering, someone else's war. The danger is not simply the inevitable sacrifice of your own citizens' lives, but of exacerbating the existing conflict. That is why the first President Bush decided against turning the liberation of Kuwait into a punitive mission against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. He was right, and his son was wrong.

What is now almost universally referred to as the Arab Spring is a historic transition that is comparable, in its scale and implications, only – in recent memory – with the demise of communism in Europe and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Whole systems have been brought down; but the rebuilding has barely begun. Few would venture to forecast what the region will look like this time next year, let alone in five, 10 or 50 years' time. The very notion that outsiders, however well-intentioned, could or should plunge in on one side or other is as presumptuous as it is unwise.

As events that seemed to rise out of nowhere, came burdened with hope, and whose results so far may be judged better than expected, the reunification of Europe and the end of apartheid may have something to teach – not to the prime players of the Arab Spring, who must forge their own path, but to those national and international leaders looking on anxiously from outside.

When the stirrings that culminated in the collapse of communism began in Hungary, there was scant understanding that the future of the whole region – from Vienna to Vladivostok – was in flux. There had been uprisings before – in East Germany (1953), in Hungary (1956), in Czechoslovakia (1968) and in Poland (1981) – and they had all been suppressed.

The tipping point is not necessarily reached even when huge numbers descend on to the streets, but when ordinary people and key individuals come to believe that the existing regime is doomed. They may slip away quietly, or they may join the opposition noisily, but it is they, not foreigners – however committed – who make the revolution. Without an internal dynamic for change, that change will not be sustainable.

The end of communism, like the end of apartheid, held huge risks. Hungary had to cope with a flood of destitute East Germans. The fall of the Berlin Wall, spontaneous and miscalculated though it might have been, represented the de facto abrogation of the post-war settlement that had underpinned almost half a century of peace. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was in part precipitated, and accompanied, by the complete collapse of the centralised supply system. Violent recriminations were envisaged here, as in South Africa.

To their credit, or perhaps because the events they were witnessing were at once so unimagined and so monumental, the leaders of the time – including George Bush, Helmut Kohl and, let it not be forgotten, John Major – resisted the temptation for national land-grabs and busied themselves with trying to avert some of the conceivable dangers. They included famine, waves of refugees and a mass of weapons – nuclear and conventional – out of control.

Their good fortune was that almost everywhere alternative governments waited in the wings. Even in these relatively propitious circumstances, however, the transitions have generally taken longer and suffered more setbacks than many hoped. And the very worst results have been in places where the fate of a tottering regime was anticipated by outside intervention.

Those of us outside the Middle East are fortunate to be witnessing one of the great historical shifts of our age. What we are seeing is by turns exhilarating, uplifting and brutal. But we should not aspire to be more than benevolent spectators, lest we tip the delicate balance for the worse.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones