World

Can We Stop a Civil War in Syria?

Outside powers should stop military involvement in the Syrian crisis and support new diplomatic initiatives.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria is close to full-scale civil war. If the conflict escalates further, as former UN Secretary-General and current envoy of both the UN and the Arab League Kofi Annan noted, “Syria is not Libya, it will not implode; it will explode beyond its borders.”

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 what is needed is serious diplomacy – not an army or air force action. 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.

Despite his government’s history of brutal repression, Bashar al-Assad still enjoys support from parts of Syria’s business elites, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, and some in minority communities (Christian, Shi’a, others) whom the regime had long cultivated. The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the regime was their goal. It divided further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began calling for international military intervention. The non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention, survives, but under extraordinary threat.

Kofi Annan has proposed new negotiations including the Syrian regime’s supporters, Iran and Russia, as well as those western, 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.”

Certainly the regime has committed brutal atrocities against civilians, potentially including war crimes. The armed opposition is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. It is increasingly difficult to confirm who may be responsible for each attack. The UN monitors have been pulled from the field. The regime has allowed a few more foreign journalists to enter Syria, but restrictions remain and the fighting in many areas means they are often unable to get reliable 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 supplied with increasingly heavy weapons – 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 for human rights violations and war crimes on all sides, 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. Most U.S. troops and mercenaries have left Iraq, but the war’s legacy of destruction and instability will last for generations. That legacy includes the sectarian divide the U.S. invasion and occupation imposed in Iraq – and as that divide spreads 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 is becoming 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. Already, alongside the global interests colliding in Syria, a Sunni-Shi’a proxy war is taking shape between Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran, each side backing opposing Syrian forces.

THREATS OF U.S./WESTERN INTERVENTION

Iran is the single most important reason for U.S. and other western interest in Syria. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to weaken Syria are widely understood to be at least partly aimed at undermining Iran, 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 less resistance-oriented, more pro-western (meaning anti-Iranian) Syria, which borders key U.S. allies including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since that brings protesters out into the streets, threatening instability.

But for the moment conditions in the area still make a U.S./NATO Libya-style military strike on Syria somewhat less likely. Despite Washington’s involvement in arming the rebels, direct military engagement by U.S. air or ground forces remains unlikely right now.

The U.S. and its allies are all too aware of the dangers to their own interests of direct military involvement in Syria. A Syrian version of post-Qaddafi Libya means greater instability across the strategic Middle East; expanding regional sectarianism; chaotic borders adjoining Israel, Iraq and Turkey; extremist Islamism gaining a foothold in Syria; and the derailing of any potential diplomatic arrangement with Iran.

All of that makes it 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 on Syria goes beyond its usual resistance to Security Council endorsement of intervention. It goes to the heart of Russia’s strategic interests, including its military capacity and its competition with the west for power, markets and influence. Russia’s relationship to Syria somewhat parallels the U.S. relationship to Bahrain: Damascus is a major Russian trading partner, especially for military equipment, and crucially, 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 could be ratcheted up again in a moment. The “CNN factor” –the relentless depiction of all-too-real heart-wrenching torment – can create political realities that influence decision-making in Washington, London, Paris, Ankara and beyond. Western media and politicians’ earlier embrace of the armed rebels has subsided somewhat as reports rise of opposition attacks and civilian casualties. But anti-Assad propaganda remains dominant. And Washington is in election mode. As the violence escalates in Syria, as more civilians, especially children, are killed, calls for military intervention escalate as well. The calls come from the media, right-wing think tanks and Congress, including from neo-cons who never gave up on plans for regime change across the Arab world, and from hawkish liberal interventionists who see military force as the solution to every human rights problem.

There are also prominent opponents of military force inside the White House and Pentagon, who recognize the problems war would create 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 pressures remains unclear. The push-back by those in civil society who say no to military intervention, while refusing to accept the false claims that the Syrian regime is somehow a fraternal bastion of anti-imperialist legitimacy, will be crucial.

SYRIA & RESISTANCE

Syria lies on the fault lines of the Middle East. That means sectarian divides in war-battered Iraq, precariously-balanced multi-confessional Lebanon and beyond; great power competition including the U.S./NATO vs. Russia; the Arab-Israeli conflict; the contested 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.

The target of Syria’s original non-violent protests was not a U.S.-backed dictator but a brutal though somewhat popular leader of the region’s anti-western resistance arc. That contradiction led some activists to support the Syrian government as a bastion of anti-imperialism and therefore to condemn all opposition forces as lackeys of Washington. Of course 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 in fact the reality is far different. Based on its alliance with Iran (and somewhat for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon) the U.S. clearly views Syria as an irritant. But Damascus has never been a consistent opponent of U.S. interests. In 1976 it backed a murderous 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 Assad Senior sent warplanes to join the U.S. attack on Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. After 9/11 the U.S. sent innocent detainees such as Maher Arar to be interrogated and tortured in Syria.

It’s also telling that Israel has been uncharacteristically silent regarding the Syrian uprising. One would expect Tel Aviv to be in the forefront of the calls for military intervention and regime change in Syria. 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 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 paralysis. At first none called for militarization of their struggle or for international military intervention.

Like in Libya, it was military defectors who first took up arms in response to the regime’s brutal suppression of the initially non-violent protests. That defensive use of arms soon morphed into a network of militias and fighters, largely unaccountable and uncoordinated, who began carrying out attacks on security forces and calling for military assistance.

For some U.S. and other western supporters of military intervention in Syria, last year’s assault on Libya provides the model for how to respond. But they were wrong to see the Libyan intervention as a “human rights victory” then, and they are more visibly wrong now. A year later, following 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 more legitimate 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. 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 thing outside powers can do is 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 accept it. Only with an end to the war, will the original home-grown opposition forces have a chance to remobilize public support for their internal, non-violent protest movement for real change, reclaiming the social movements for Syria’s own version of freedom and democracy, and reasserting Syria’s place in the Arab Spring.

​This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera English.

***

​Who's Who in the Syrian Uprising?

 

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; 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. Washington is 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.     

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power" (Interlink Publishing, October 2005).
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