Peter Jones: Aung Sang Suu Kyi an object lesson for Syria

Aung Sang Suu Kyi wore down Burma’s regime, but Syrians don’t have 22 years to wait as casualties grow, writes Peter Jones

Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s election to the Burmese parliament at the weekend is yet one more spark of freedom in the global movement that is steadily removing dictators from power. But there is no light yet showing in the dreadful night of despotism that grips Syria. Should the world’s democratic powers do more to hasten the departure of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad?

Developments in Burma suggest that there may be an alternative route to doing that other than the more forceful course of arming Syrian rebels and providing them with external military support – the action that proved, albeit bloodily, successful in Libya.

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Ms Suu Kyi faced much the same military dictatorship that weighs in Syria. She had the long historic advantage of being the undisputed but deposed Burmese democratic leader. Having led her party, the National League for Democracy, to victory in elections in 1990, Burma’s military rulers stole the result and imprisoned Ms Suu Kyi.

She and her supporters did not resort to violence, but waged a long campaign of passive and peaceful resistance, apparently to no effect as the generals were utterly impervious to any international pressure, whether waged diplomatically, by economic sanctions or by campaign groups.

But something eventually gave. It appears to be a realisation by Burma’s rulers that being a client state of China, its most important trade partner by far, is no longer a safe bet. It has been strengthening ties with America, seeking to broaden its trading arena which necessitates reducing censorship, the release of political prisoners, and a dose of democracy.

Not too much, mind you. Only 44 seats in the 664-seat parliament were up for grabs so the regime is not about to lose any votes of confidence. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the box. Ms Suu Kyi now has a place in Burmese politics, and the generals can only silence it at great cost to themselves.

Now you might, quite reasonably, remark that 22 years is a heck of a long time for change to come about. Given that the death toll in the Syrian uprising is now probably close to about 10,000 after less than a year, the people cannot afford such a long wait. And it would be a constant reproach and stain on the democratic world’s conscience to sit back and allow the repression to continue.

True, president Assad has said he accepts the six-point peace plan produced by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. But by saying he will only implement it after all the rebels have given up their weapons means that he has absolutely no intention of ending the repression and talking to people his regime brands as terrorists.

The real problem is that his regime is the only united force in the conflict. Both his domestic and international opponents are divided. Going down the route suggested by Mr Annan, a kind of Burmese-style partial opening, also looks pointless. So bitter is the opposition to Mr Assad that any freedoms they gain would be used by them solely, and quite understandably, to attack his regime.

Internal divisions further devalue Mr Annan’s proposals. The most visible opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council, jostles for prominence with a variety of other outfits such as the National Co-ordination Body, while the Free Syrian Army, mostly composed of deserters, regards all of them with deep suspicion.

Underlying these divisions is a much more problematic religious divide. Most of those who have suffered under Mr Assad are Sunni Arabs, who comprise more than half the population. The president and his supporters are mostly Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. Being a minority, they fear bloody reprisals, a dread which is also shared by other minority religions including Christians. Through these fears, Mr Assad is supported by perhaps a third of Syria’s 23 million people.

This points the way to the first thing which can be done – encouraging the motley opposition groups to unite and giving them the means to reassure all of Syria’s people that there will be no reprisals if Mr Assad goes. That is a tough task, but the point is that the international friends of the rebels have no interest in merely replacing one bloodbath with a different one.

This seems to have been one of the things decided by the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul at the weekend, with the US promising £7 million of humanitarian aid and communications equipment. It is one of the lessons of Burma, that communication, which now happens infinitely faster than two decades ago, is a powerful weapon.

Demonstrating that Mr Assad’s opponents have only peaceful intentions is trickier. One possibility is the creation of safe havens in northern Syria close to the border with Turkey, which is promoting this idea provided it gets support from Nato countries. If this is purely defensive support, Mr Assad would come to no harm unless he attacks the havens. Highly risky, but worth considering.

The third thing is to erode Mr Assad’s military power. At Istanbul, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states agreed to pay defectors who join the Free Syrian Army and apparently are willing to set aside unlimited sums, channelled through the Syrian National Council, to achieve that.

If it does work, then that may serve to erode Syria’s external support. Russia’s veto of UN Security Council anti-Syrian resolutions was partly about preventing the Arab spring turning into a Russian spring, and partly about protecting the strategically important Russian naval base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. But if Mr Assad starts to look much weaker, Russian president Vladimir Putin may have to reconsider how to preserve this valuable military asset.

None of these stratagems look like being the magic bullet to end Mr Assad’s rule. But coupled with the economic sanctions which are having an effect, causing power cuts and raising doubts about the regime’s economic viability, they may eventually work to push Mr Assad into a position where he has little option but to implement Mr Annan’s peace plan.

The example of Burma shows that a constant drip can eat its way through the apparently impervious just as effectively as bombs and missiles. It does take longer but it costs fewer lives. It just needs to be not too long.