WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, June 18, 2012 - Syria has turned into an ugly quagmire.
In the last two months, the Syrian conflict has escalated, with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured opposition increasing the levels of violence and brutality. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 14,400 Syrians have died in the 16-month conflict, and there is no end in sight. The international media daily reports atrocities in Homs, Deir Ezzor, Douma and Qoudsaya among others. Two massacres of innocent civilians, including children, starkly display how repulsive the fighting has become.
Observers also admit it is difficult to assess the number of dead and the amount of destruction, since the government prohibits international journalists from entering the country, restricts the movements of United Nations observers and skews all information coming out of the country.
The Syrian situation is, to put it mildly, complicated.
In January 2011, pro-democracy groups began peaceful demonstrations calling on President Assad to implement democratic reforms. Unlike other countries impacted by the Arab Spring, Syria did not want Assad to step down. Instead, they asked him to begin introducing democracy to the country. At the time demonstrations started, the vast majority of Syrian’s supported Assad and wanted him to remain in power. Originally, protestors also did not want foreign government’s to assist with the conflict.
Assad’s brutal crackdown against the protestors spurred international condemnation and spawned several opposition groups.
International leaders recognize the Syrian National Council, headquartered in Ankara, as the primary opposition group. The Council works outside of Syria to rally international support to oust Assad. However, the group now has two leaders, each claiming himself as the official head of the organization. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), started by military defectors who refused to shoot protestors, is the main armed opposition inside Syria. It is separate from the Syrian National Council. Recently, several factions of the Free Syrian Army have declared themselves separate from the FSA and under their own leadership. The Syrian Patriotic Group splintered from the Syrian National Council and says it is the true opposition leadership. The National Co-ordination Committee rejects violence and does not want foreign intervention in the conflict. There is no coordination among the groups.
Assad retains the loyalty of the military, the intelligence services, the police, much of the business class and other members of his Alawite religious group. Alawhites are a mystical sect of Shi’ite Muslims and make up between 15 and 25% of Syria’s population. Much of the elite class in Syria is made up of Alawites, as are the top-level military and intelligence officers and members of government. Alawites worry that if Assad leaves office, the majority Sunni’s will retaliate against them.
There is no obvious organic answer to Syria’s conflict. There is no internal leader or power broker who has the popularity or strength to bring peace. There is no major opposition group positioned to take over government. Neither the government nor the rebels has sufficient fire-power to end the conflict militarily in the near term. Most importantly, there is no internal political will by either Assad or the opposition to negotiate a peace settlement. Both sides believe they can win, and are prepared to fight until they defeat the opposition.
Syria has the misfortune of bad timing. International powers who recently took military action in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have little stomach for another military conflict, and Western populations are weary of armed conflict. China and Russia, members of the UN Security Council, have blocked any serious UN sanctions against Syria to protect their own interests – oil and military bases – and the West appears uninterested in unilateral action in the country. Especially when there is no clear alternative to Assad, and removing him would likely create a sucking power vacuum that would lead to still more chaos and confusion.
International actors, who have condemned Assad and the violence in general, have failed to take any serious action. Although they named international envoy Kofi Annan to create a peace plan for Syria, they failed to adequately back his efforts. Annan succeeded in obtaining promises from Assad and the opposition to follow his six-point peace plan to end the fighting, but both sides promptly ignored it and continued fighting. The international community took no action when both sides broke the treaty.
International efforts so far have lacked two essential ingredients that make diplomacy succeed: the carrot and the stick.
Assad, a brutal dictator willing to murder his own people to retain his grasp on power, is not stupid. He knows that the international community is not prepared to take military action in Syria. He also knows that the convoluted political picture would leave Syria with few options if he was to exit; the likely short-term result would be warring militias or fragmented and leaderless armed groups. The West has provided Assad with no positive motivation to end the conflict. He has little to gain if he ends the crackdown, but also has little to loose if he continues.
If the international community sincerely wants to end the Syrian conflict, it needs to swallow hard and make very difficult choices.
If the top priority is to stop the conflict, the best choice may be to accept Assad and offer him positive rewards to end fighting. Unfortunately, this opens the possibility of continued armed opposition, and gives him the right to defend his government from the rebels.
Harsh international sanctions would help to slowly choke the regime. However, China and Russia remain opposed to implementing them. Additionally, because sanctions will take time to impact Assad, more people will die in the intervening months and the population will also likely suffer from economic restrictions.
Another option – unlikely at this point – is to take strong and decisive military action in Syria. Air strikes, like NATO undertook in Libya, would overpower Assad’s forces. They would likely also cause significant casualties, adding to the already high death toll. Military action would remove Assad, but would leave chaos in his wake. This could create a fertile atmosphere for radical Islamists or other groups to take control, or it could encourage complete breakdown of central government and rule of law. The secretary general of NATO has warned that even if the UN mandated military action, the mission has a low probability of bringing stability and democracy to Syria.
As the international community saw with Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and numerous other countries where they intervened militarily, intervention does not necessarily translate into stability, democracy or pro-Western governments. Moreover, when outsiders step in to stop killing, they often create situations where even more people die.
Unless the international community is prepared to use force to remove Assad and send in an occupying force to set up democratic institutions and rule until the political class has time to evolve and recover from years of domineering dictatorship, it will have to come up with a creative solution to resolve the situation and stop the killing.
Unfortunately, that solution has not yet materialized.
The question is, how much does the West really care, and is it willing to put forward resources and effort to create a solution, or will it rely on known – and generally ineffective, sometimes counter-productive, and often deadly – programs?
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