A protester makes a victory sign behind the Syrian flag during a protest against President
Bashar al-Assad in April, 2011. (Photo: UPI)
Fifteen months on, the short Syrian spring of 2011 has long since morphed into a harsh winter of discontent. Syria is close to full-scale civil war. If the conflict escalates further, it will have ramifications far outside the country itself. As former UN Secretary-General and current envoy of both the UN and the Arab League Kofi Annan put it, “’Syria is not Libya, it will not implode; it will explode beyond its borders.”
Like so many other times before, the human cost of this conflict is incalculably high. It’s not surprising that the normal human reaction is “we’ve got to do something!” But exactly what any army or air force might do that would actually help the situation isn’t very clear. U.S./NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to do so in Syria.
The one crucial outside approach that could help resolve at least the immediate conflict – serious negotiations in which both sides are represented – for the moment remains out of reach. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the joint UN and Arab League envoy in Syria, has proposed at a new diplomatic initiative that would include the Syrian regime’s supporters, Iran and Russia, as well as the U.S.-allied western countries and those Arab and regional governments backing the armed opposition. So far the U.S. has rejected the proposal, at least regarding Iran, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Tehran is part of the problem in Syria and thus can’t be part of the solution. The current UN secretary-general, Ban ki-moon, who frequently reflects Washington’s interests, further undercut the potential of his own envoy’s proposal, saying that Assad has “lost all legitimacy” – diplomatic code for “we don’t have to talk to him.”
For those eager for analogies or counterparts, this isn’t Egypt or Libya, where opposition to the leader was overwhelming. Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Bashar al-Assad still enjoys significant support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, and some in minority communities (Christian, Shi’a, parts of the Druse and even some Kurds) whom the regime had cultivated for many years. The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the Assad regime was their goal. It divided still further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began to call for international military intervention. The non-violent opposition movement, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but under extraordinary threat.
There is no question that the regime has carried out brutal acts against civilians, potentially including war crimes. It also appears the armed opposition is responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. It is increasingly difficult to confirm who may be responsible for any particular assault. The UN monitors on the ground, whose access was already severely limited, have now been pulled from the field. The regime has allowed a few more foreign journalists to enter the country, but restrictions remain and the fighting is so severe in many areas they are often unable to get solid information. The regime is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being armed with increasingly heavy weapons, largely paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and coordinated by Turkey and the CIA. Indications are growing of well-armed outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.
Accountability, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial – but stopping the current escalation of violence and avoiding all-out war must come first.
SECTARIANISM ON THE RISE
Syria is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the U.S. war in Iraq. While most U.S. troops and mercenaries have left Iraq, the destruction and instability left behind have created a legacy that will last for generations. One aspect of that legacy is the sectarian divide that the U.S. invasion and occupation imposed in Iraq – and as the expansion of that divide continues across the region, the threat of increasing sectarianism in Syria looms. Although the Assad regimes – from father Hafez’s rise to power in 1970 through his son Bashar’s rule since 2000 – have always been ruthlessly secular, Syria remains a poster-country for sectarian strife. The ruling Assad clan are Alawites (a form of Islam related to Shi’ism), ruling over a country with a large Sunni majority.
If the increasing sectarianism of the Syrian conflict extends beyond its borders, it could lead to regional conflagration involving even greater refugee flows and potentially battles in or around Syria’s neighbors Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere. Already, alongside the international power interests colliding in Syria, there is the beginning of a Sunni-Shi’a proxy war taking shape, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Shi’a Iran, backing opposing forces.
THREATS OF U.S./WESTERN INTERVENTION
Iran’s role is the single most important basis for U.S. and other western interest in Syria, making that emerging proxy war even more dangerous. At this moment of continuing U.S. pressure, increasing U.S. and EU sanctions, and Israeli threats against Iran, Syria remains a tempting proxy target. Syria itself isn’t a significant oil producer, and Washington has been far more concerned about keeping Syria’s borders secure for Israel, and reducing Iranian influence than with getting into Syria itself. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to weaken or undermine Syria are widely understood to be at least partly aimed at undermining Iran, by destroying Tehran’s one reliable Arab ally. This is perhaps the most influential factor pushing the U.S. towards greater action against Syria.
Certainly the U.S., the EU and the U.S.-backed Arab Gulf governments would prefer a more reliable, pro-western (meaning anti-Iranian), less resistance-oriented government than Assad’s in Syria, which borders key countries of U.S. interest including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since brutality brings protesters out into the streets, threatening instability. But for the moment, despite the U.S. involvement in helping its allies arm the opposition, conditions in the area still make a direct Libya-style U.S./NATO military strike on Syria somewhat less likely.
The U.S. and its allies are all too aware of the consequences for their own interests of direct military involvement in Syria – based on what they see now in post-Qaddafi Libya. That model in Syria would create greater instability in the core of the strategic Middle East; expanding regional sectarianism; chaotic borders adjoining Israel, Iraq and Turkey; extremist Islamism gaining a foothold in Syria; and the end of any potential diplomatic arrangement with Iran. In Europe, there is no “attack Syria” pressure equivalent to the political demands brought to bear on French and Italian leaders to intervene in Libya last year, following the PR fiasco of their overt colonial-style disdain for the earlier uprising in Tunisia. For Turkey, among the most active supporters of arming the opposition, Syria’s shoot-down of the Turkish plane could lead to even stronger calls for military intervention; so far, though, while Ankara’s call for a NATO “discussion” of the matter means risks of escalation continue, the uncertainty of whether the plane was over international or Syrian waters has allowed both governments to moderate their responses.
So at the moment it still appears unlikely the Obama administration would risk an attack on Syria without a UN Security Council endorsement. And that endorsement is simply not going to happen in the near future. China and Russia have both indicated they oppose any use of force against Syria, and so far they are both opposing additional sanctions as well.
Russian opposition to an attack on Syria goes beyond Moscow’s usual resistance to Security Council endorsement of intervention anywhere in the world. It goes to the heart of Russia’s strategic national interests, including its military capacity and its competition with the west for power, markets and influence in the Middle East. Russia’s relationship to Syria more or less parallels the U.S. relationship to Bahrain: Damascus is a major Russian trading partner, especially for military equipment, and most crucial of all, hosts Moscow’s only Mediterranean naval base (and only military base outside the former Soviet Union), in Tartus on Syria’s southern coast.
Certainly there are no guarantees. Politics still trumps strategic interests. The risk of a U.S./NATO attack on Syria remains, and the threat could be ratcheted up again in a moment. This isn’t about humanitarian concerns –neither the U.S. nor any other country has ever used military force for purely humanitarian purposes. But the “CNN factor” –the relentless depiction of all-too-real heart-wrenching suffering – creates a political reality that influences decision-making in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and beyond. As the violence escalates in Syria, as more civilians, especially children, are killed, calls for intervention, some real and some cynical, escalate as well.
In the U.S. and Europe, the media and politicians’ earlier embrace of the armed opposition has subsided somewhat as reports rise of opposition attacks and resulting civilian casualties. But anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant. And Washington is in election mode, so the pressure to “do something” is on the rise. The calls for military intervention are coming from the media and some in Congress, from neo-cons who never gave up on their plans for regime change across the Arab world, and from hawkish liberal interventionists who again see military force as a solution to every human rights or humanitarian problem.
There are also prominent opponents of military force inside the White House and Pentagon, who recognize it would create worse problems for U.S. interests (even if they don’t care much about the impact on Syrian civilians). Whether they can stand up to election-year “do something” pressures remains unclear. The push-back by those in civil society who say no to military intervention, while refusing to accept the mechanical “enemy of my enemy is my friend” claims that the Syrian regime is somehow a fraternal bastion of anti-imperialist legitimacy, will be crucial.
SYRIA, RESISTANCE, ANTI-IMPERIALISM?
Syria’s position, geographic and political, and the resulting interest in it from outside actors, makes things very complicated. The country lies on the fault lines of the Middle East – from sectarian divides in war-battered Iraq and precariously-balanced multi-confessional Lebanon and across the broader region, to great power competition including the U.S and NATO vs. Russia, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the roles of non-Arab Turkey and Iran. There is a crucial divergence between the role the Assad regime has played domestically and its regional position. As Jadaliyya co-editor Bassam Haddad has written, “most people in the region are opposed to the Syrian regime’s domestic behavior during the past decades, but they are not opposed to its regional role. The problem is the Syrian regime’s internal repression, not its external policies.” That opinion could describe the view of many Syrians as well.
Of course unlike Egypt or Tunisia, the target of Syria’s original non-violent protests was not a U.S.-backed dictator but a brutal though somewhat popular leader at the center of the anti-western resistance arc of the Middle East. And even if Assad had played a consistent anti-imperialist role in the region, Syrians would have every right and reason to challenge his regime’s brutality and denial of human rights. But the claim led some international activists to lionize the Syrian government as a bastion of anti-imperialism and therefore to condemn all opposition forces as lackeys of Washington.
In fact the regime’s reality is far different. Certainly the U.S. views Syria, largely based on its alliance with Iran (and somewhat for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon) as an irritant. But Damascus has never been a consistent opponent of U.S. interests. In 1976 it backed a massive attack by right-wing Falangists and other Christian militias against the Palestinian refugee camp at Tel al-Zataar during Lebanon’s civil war. In 1991 Syria sent warplanes to join the U.S. war coalition to attack Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. After 9/11 George W. Bush collaborated with the Assad regime to send innocent detainees such as Maher Arar to be interrogated and tortured in Syria.
It is also crucial to note which important U.S. ally in the Middle East has been uncharacteristically silent regarding the Syrian uprising: Israel. One would have expected Tel Aviv to be leading the calls for military intervention against Syria, the demands for regime change, the constant drumbeat of demonization and the calls for war. But Israel has been largely silent – because despite the rhetorical and diplomatic antagonism between the two, Syria has been a generally reliable and predictable neighbor. The occasional border clash or small-scale eruption of violence aside, Assad has kept the border, and thus the economically strategic and water-rich Golan Heights, illegally occupied by Israel since 1967, largely quiescent. As late as 2009 Assad was offering Israel negotiations “without preconditions” over the Golan Heights. And further, Assad is a known quantity; despite Syria’s close ties to Iran, Israel has little interest in a post-Assad Syria like today’s Libya, with uncontrolled borders, unaccountable militias, arms flooding in and out, rising Islamist influence, and a weak, illegitimate and corrupt government ultimately unable to secure the country. For Israel, the “anti-imperialist” Assad still looks pretty good.
ORIGINS, IMPACTS & CONSEQUENCES
The Syrian uprising that began in early 2011 was part of the broader regional rising that became known as the Arab Spring. Like their counterparts, Syria’s non-violent protesters poured into the streets with political/democratic demands that broke open a generations-long culture of fear and political paralysis. Like those who mobilized against U.S.-backed dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, the Syrian protesters were both secular and religious, reflecting a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions. There were calls for democratization, demands that long-silenced voices be heard and empowered, and for immediate and massive political changes.
For some that meant that the regime must end, some were willing to negotiate with the government without Assad, still others called for broad reforms, ending political repression and opening the political system, within the existing governing structures. But at first none called for international military intervention.
Then, like in Libya, some in the Syrian opposition, particularly military defectors, took up arms in response to the regime’s brutal suppression of the initially non-violent protests. The defensive use of arms soon morphed into a network of militias and fighters, largely unaccountable and uncoordinated – some of whom later began to call for military assistance.
Now some U.S. and supporters of western military intervention in Syria, last year’s assault on Libya provides the model of how to respond to a human rights/humanitarian crisis. They believe it was a victory for human rights when a couple of European leaders proposed a no-fly zone, and part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition eagerly accepted their offer, and part of the Arab League and part of Europe and part of the Obama administration and most of NATO agreed. With the fig leaf of Arab League approval (the African Union was sidelined as soon as it refused to support the military assault), the U.S./NATO warplanes quickly became the air force of the armed Libyan opposition, the “no-fly zone” was immediately transformed into an all-out air war and bombing campaign, and “protection of civilians” was instantly redefined as regime change.
But they were wrong to see it as a “human rights victory” then and they are more visibly wrong now. A year later, following the overthrow (and killing) of Qaddafi and the deaths of thousands of Libyans, the now-divided country struggles with out-of-control militias holding thousands of prisoners, torture, escalating violence, continuing attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and other foreigners, a virtually powerless government with more legitimacy in the West than at home, and a shattered national, social and physical infrastructure.
The impact of a military strike in Syria could be even worse. Syria’s conflict poses far more complex challenges than any of the earlier derailments from the non-violent mobilizations of the Arab Spring in Bahrain, Yemen or even Libya. Inside the country, the nature of Syria’s diverse economy, its strong middle class, the once relatively small gap between Syrian wealth and poverty, all mean that the regime maintains some level of legitimacy despite years of repression against political critics. Bashar al-Assad appears to maintain significantly more support than did Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, for instance. The Assad regime’s own minority status strengthens claims it is protecting other Syrian minorities. And the tight links between ruling family and the military, mean that despite significant numbers of increasingly high-level military defections, the government and top military command appear largely intact. If the defections, such as the high-visibility flight to Jordan of Syrian air force officer in their Russian-made MiG fighter plane, escalate, the military capacity of the regime will be seriously undermined. But so far, the military-government unity remains viable.
For ordinary Syrians, struggling to survive amid escalating fighting, with virtually no access to electricity, water or medical assistance in more and more cities, the only hope starts with ending the fighting. The best – probably the only – useful thing outside powers can do, would be to move immediately towards serious new diplomacy, in which supporters of both the regime and the armed opposition participate, with the goal of imposing an immediate ceasefire. Kofi Annan’s call for just such a diplomatic option could be the start, if Washington could be pressured to reverse its opposition.
Such a diplomatic channel – bringing together Iran and Russia on one side, the U.S., EU, Turkey and pro-western Arab monarchies on the other, under UN auspices – would not solve all the problems that led to the Syrian crisis. The United Nations, particularly the veto-bound Security Council, remains thoroughly undemocratic, with U.S. domination a longstanding challenge. This kind of diplomacy would likely not reflect all the diverse interests of the Syrian people – but it would stop the current escalation towards full-scale civil war, and perhaps open enough political space to re-empower the original indigenous non-violent democratic movements in Syria. It will only work if it is kept out of the UN’s currently popular “responsibility to protect” (R2P) framework, which inevitably leads to outside military force.
The best the Annan plan could achieve would be to bring enough pressure to bear on the two sides (assuming the U.S./western/Arab monarchy side and the Russian/Iranian side could agree on a goal) to reverse the current military escalation and perhaps impose a lasting ceasefire, long enough to force real negotiations inside Syria between a re-empowered internal opposition and the regime on some kind of political transition. Finding agreement between the diplomatic sponsors, let alone between the two sides inside Syria, will obviously not be easy.
But only with an end to the war, will the original unarmed opposition forces have a chance to remobilize public support for the internal, non-violent protest movement for real change, reclaiming social movements for Syria’s own freedom and democracy, and reasserting Syria’s place in the Arab Spring.
There are at least five distinct forces at play in the Syrian uprising:
- The regime – power largely concentrated in the extended Assad family and broader Alawite community; political leadership closely interconnected with top military command and mukhabarat (secret police). Maintains some popular support also from key business and banking powers in Syria, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. Has political support and some military assistance from Iran; recent expressions of political support from ALBA countries of Latin America (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua,Venezuela) in context of U.S. and other western threats. Key military and commercial ties with Russia, especially through providing Russia with naval base at Tartus. Higher-level defections from military on the increase.
- The original non-violent opposition – broad and diverse, secular and faith-based. Many activists came together in new informal coalitions and groupings that bypassed some older, more staid organizations. Maintains opposition to arming of opposition and especially to any outside military intervention. These activists were the primary force of the early uprising, but achieved less visibility as regime’s repression targeting non-violent actions succeeded in suppressing protests, international media was largely excluded, and internal independent media focused primarily on attacks on civilians. Renewed attention in recent months, including documenting street protests that are continuing despite civil war-like conditions in the country. It appears that more public mobilizations, including but not limited to street protests, are on the rise again with broadly democratic participation, especially in and around the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, once known as relative strongholds of regime support. In April a young woman stood alone outside the parliament in Damascus with a banner that read “Stop the Killing, we want to build a homeland for all Syrians.” Islamist forces are among those involved in the non-violent opposition; for instance longtime Syrian non-violent leader Sheikh Jawad Said.
The non-violent opposition also includes the National Coordination Committee, made up of 13 political parties including some leftist forces, and independent mainly secular activists. They are against any military intervention, including a so-called “no-fly zone” (that opened the assault on Libya); their leader, Hussein Abdul Azim, said “we reject foreign intervention – we think it is as dangerous as tyranny. We reject both.” They do, however, support economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Assad. The NCC does not call for overthrowing the regime, but instead for a national dialogue – though it does not support Assad’s proposed dialogue initiative, but rather a process conditioned on the pullback of military forces from the streets, ending attacks on peaceful protests, and release of all political prisoners. Some in the NCC have called for trying to replace the SNC as the “official” or recognized representative of the Syrian opposition.
- The internal Syrian armed opposition – originally based on military defectors who created Free Syrian Army, morphed into assorted militias using FSA name, but with little central coordination; includes both defectors and armed civilians. FSA leaders have admitted they are not in control of the proliferation of groups of armed civilians operating under the FSA name. In recent weeks numbers of soldiers reported killed have escalated, as have reports of direct fights between regime soldiers and armed opposition groups. Appear to be receiving heavier weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey is providing logistical support to transfer weapons, and U.S. providing “non-lethal” military equipment including night-vision goggles, GPS gear, etc.
- The internal/external supporters of the armed opposition - grouped primarily in the Syrian National Council (SNC), and call explicitly for overthrow of the regime. Includes Muslim Brotherhood, Local Coordination Committees (grassroots activist groups inside Syria), Kurdish factions, and others, including exile factions. Muslim Brotherhood probably most organized single organization within it; consistent disagreements over Islamist influence. Have political base outside Syria, in Italy and Turkey. Originally claimed to defend non-violent nature of uprising but later called for coordinating role over armed factions inside and control of all weapons going in (FSA says will not cooperate with that, want weapons directly). At least some of SNC leadership calling for outside military assistance. The SNC recently asked individual countries to provide the Syrian opposition with “military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves.” Very diverse politically, secular and Islamist, have had continuing problems with achieving enough unity to engage with international forces. Despite divisions, uncertain leadership and questionable levels support from inside Syria, SNC has been adopted by western (U.S., parts of EU) and Arab Gulf (Saudi, Qatar) governments and to some degree Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “they will have a seat at the table as a representative of the Syrian people.” The SNC has appeared weaker in recent months.
Largely through the SNC, the U.S. is providing the Syrian opposition with “non-lethal” military supplies, including communications gear, GPS equipment more. Washingtonis also apparently supporting some kind of military training and backing efforts to unify the disparate opposition elements into a more coherent whole.
- Non-Syrian armed forces – unknown forces, apparently mostly non-Syrian, including volunteers or others from international Islamist fighting groups appear to be arriving to fight in Syria. Goals unclear, could include opposition to Alawite/Shi’a government (Alawites considered an off-shoot of Shi’a Islam, and thus heretical to some extremist Sunni fundamentalists), and/or efforts to create chaos through military attacks resulting in power vacuums they might hope to fill.
A shorter version of this piece first appeared on the Al Jazeera English website.