The Normalization of Crime and Tragedy: A Darfur Scenario for Syria?
Propangadists for the Damascus regime draw on comparisons between the situation in Syria and the 1993 Waco incident in the United States, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China, and the two 1990s Russian wars in Chechnia to suggest that when faced with an armed rebellion, governments have to resort to convincing force that may result in civilian casualties, but are nonetheless able to restore both internal order and international standing. It is naturally not useful to deconstruct such fanciful arguments. It is, however, unfortunately the case that Damascus can take solace of the precedent of the survival of a regime after brutal, criminal, quasi-genocidal repression.
The case in question is Sudan, where an authoritarian government—of the same Arab despotic “republic” pedigree as the Syrian regime—was able to survive the commission of atrocities of the same nature as those committed by the Damascus regime forces—at an even higher order of magnitude. The response of Khartoum to insurgent acts in the Western Sudanese region of Darfur in 2003 resulted in the massacre of more than 300,000, and the displacement of upwards of 2 million. Almost a decade later, the tragedy in Darfur is unresolved, and the Khartoum government enjoys continued impunity.
The credibility of the Western alliance, which is today locked in futile renewed sanctions against the Syrian regime, while losing its resilience at the attrition of those imposed on Khartoum, is contingent on a stand in both situations commensurate with the gravity and imminence of the crime.
Fundamental similarities can be noted between the plight of Darfur and the degenerating situation in Syria. In both cases, the authoritarian regimes over-reacted to the rebellious actions of a few, using counter-productive brute force and eventually degenerating into a massive repressive action aimed at collective punishment and terrorization. In both cases, the regimes built their nominal legitimacy on ideological claims that were void of meaningful content—an Islamism that was supposed to overcome the multi-ethnic character of (Northern) Sudan, and an Arabism that was supposed to surpass the multi-religious nature of Syria—while in fact relying on an extensive security apparatus to compensate for the discrediting of their ideological claims. Both regimes mobilized segments of the population against the communities deemed as incubators of the rebellion by appealing to sectarian fears—“Arabs” against alleged Africanist secessionism in Darfur, and Alawis against presumed Sunni majoritism in Syria.
In Sudan as well as in Syria, the factional mobilization is obfuscated by a recourse to anti-Western (“anti-imperialist”) discourse that explains away rebellion and repression. The local production of this discourse is aided and abetted by a regional network, with outfits such as Russia Today providing international legitimization. Both Khartoum and Damascus are precious allies of Tehran, and maintain thoroughly cordial relations with Moscow and Beijing.
The similarities in the modus operandi of the Khartoum and Damascus regimes is not incidental. Statism, authoritarianism, and common allies offer the same toolbox of repression and evasion strategies.
Leveraging this toolbox, the Khartoum regime has normalized the Darfur tragedy, creating a lethal status quo, where a defeated population continues to be faced with systematic repression, with the international community implicitly participating in this normalization—merely providing minimal levels of humanitarian aid—and where perpetrators have yet to face any credible prosecution. It is indeed a model that the Syrian regime would gladly follow. However, for Damascus to reach this coveted status, some differences between the two situations would need to be resolved.
In 2003, the Khartoum regime was also facing a plethora of unresolved internal conflicts. Its management of its complex crises was successful in parceling regional confrontations and avoiding their amalgamation into a coherent drive against it. In countering its current insurgency, the Damascus strategy has also been to seek to compartmentalize the rebellious cities. While it can claim a limited victory in deflecting what seemed at first a Kurdish embrace of the anti-regime uprising, by ceding to Kurdish groups large swaths of territory, Damascus still faces an uprising unified in its commitment to see the regime toppled. While through propaganda, infiltrations, “diplomacy”, and sundry maneuvers, the regime thrives to unravel the opposition, the balance of power in Syria does not provide for more of a stalemate in favor of the regime—unless it applies what made it possible for Khartoum to impose its despotic will in Darfur: unrestrained genocidal force. For a WMD-equipped regime convinced of its long-term impunity, this may not be such an unreasonable proposition.
Prior to September 11th, 2001, despite accounts of the intended use of civilian jetliners as weapons of mass killings, decision-makers in Western capitals seemed in denial of the possibility of such a breach of common humanity. Is the same denial excluding the consideration that the Syrian regime might engage in genocidal action to extract itself from its impasse. Khartoum successfully normalized its crime. Why not Damascus? The answer is in Western capitals.
Hassan Mneimneh is Senior Transatlantic fellow for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Islamic World at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. Mneimneh was previously Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Director at the Iraq Memory Foundation. He is co-editor of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology and a regular contributor to the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat