According to propagandists for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the current situation in Syria is little different from the 1993 Waco incident in the United States, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China, or the two Russian wars in Chechnya. In their view, governments have to resort to convincing force when faced with armed rebellion. While it may result in civilian casualties, such a show of force can restore both internal order and international standing.
Irrespective of these false analogies, the regime in Syria can unfortunately take some solace from the case of Sudan, where the government remains in place despite its brutal, criminal, and quasi-genocidal repression. The response of Khartoum to insurgent acts in the western region of Darfur in 2003 resulted in the massacre of more than 300,000 people and the displacement of upwards of 2 million. Almost a decade later, the tragic situation in Darfur remains unresolved, and the government in Khartoum continues to act with impunity. In both situations, the credibility of the West is contingent upon whether its stand is commensurate with the gravity and imminence of the regime’s crimes.
Strong similarities can be noted between the plight of Darfur and the degenerating situation in Syria. Both authoritarian governments over-reacted to the rebellious actions of a few, using counter-productive brute force that eventually degenerated into widespread repression aimed at collective punishment and terrorization. Both regimes have constructed their nominal legitimacy on ideological claims that are void of meaningful content. Sudan embraced an Islamism that was supposed to overcome the multi-ethnic character of the country, while Syria adopted an Arabism that was supposed to surpass the multi-religious nature of Syria. In fact, both states have relied upon an extensive security apparatus that compensates for the discrediting of their ideological claims. By fanning sectarian fears, both regimes mobilized segments of their populations against communities deemed incubators of rebellion — “Arabs” against allegedly “African” secessionists in Darfur, and Alawis against the presumed Sunni majority in Syria.
Additionally, in Sudan as well as in Syria, anti-Western and “anti-imperialist” discourse is employed to somehow justify rebellion and repression. This is often aided and abetted by regional media networks, with outfits such as Russia Today providing international legitimization. Not surprisingly, both Khartoum and Damascus are close allies of Tehran, and maintain cordial relations with Moscow and Beijing. The similarities are not coincidental. Statist legacies, authoritarianism, and common allies offer Khartoum and Damascus the same toolbox of repression and evasion strategies.
These tools have allowed Khartoum to normalize the Darfur tragedy, creating a status quo under which a defeated population continues to be faced with systematic repression. The international community is an implicit participant in this normalization, providing only minimal levels of humanitarian aid, and failing to credibly prosecute the perpetrators. Sudan is indeed a model that the Syrian regime would gladly follow. However, for Damascus to reach the same end, it would have to resolve certain differences.
Just as Khartoum succeeded in keeping separate its various unresolved conflicts so as to avoid their amalgamation into a coherent anti-government movement, Damascus has sought to compartmentalize rebellious cities. While it may have addressed the Kurdish dimension of the rebellion by ceding large swaths of territory to Kurdish groups, Damascus still faces an uprising unified in its commitment to see the regime toppled. Although it tries to weaken the opposition through propaganda, infiltrations, and diplomacy, the balance of power in Syria will ensure a stalemate, unless Damascus — like Khartoum — applies unrestrained genocidal force. For a regime equipped with weapons of mass destruction convinced of its long-term impunity, this may not appear such an unreasonable proposition.
Despite accounts of the intended use of civilian jetliners as weapons of mass murder before 2001, decision-makers in Western capitals seemed in denial about the possibility of such a breach of common humanity. Might the United States and its allies be in a similar sense of denial today about the prospects of genocide in Syria? Khartoum successfully normalized its crimes. Why not Damascus? It may require bold decisions in Western capitals to ensure that the Syrian regime does not resort to a similar approach.
Hassan Mneimneh is Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.