Syria is close to 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. 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, Aleppo, and some minority communities (Christian, Shia, and others) whom the regime has 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 is 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—allegedly 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. 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 Shiism), ruling over a country with a large Sunni majority. Already, alongside the global interests colliding in Syria, a Sunni-Shia proxy war is taking shape between Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran, each side backing opposing Syrian forces.
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, and 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 alleged 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 aware of the dangers to their own interests of direct military involvement in Syria. A Syrian version of post-Gaddafi 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. But that endorsement is 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 endorsements 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 with Syria somewhat parallels the U.S. relationship with 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.
Certainly there are no guarantees. Politics still trump strategic interests. The risk of a U.S./NATO attack on Syria remains and could be ratcheted up again at any moment. The “CNN factor”—the relentless depiction of 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. 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 pushback 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 and Resistance
Syria lies on the faultlines 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 versus 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 the reality is far different. Based on Syria’s 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 Phalangists 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, And Consequences
The Syrian uprising that began in early 2011 was part of the broader regional uprising that became known as the Arab Spring. Like their counterparts in other countries, Syria’s non- violent protesters poured into the streets with political and 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. “For ordinary Syrians, struggling to survive amid escalating fighting…the only hope starts with ending the fighting.”
As 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, with torture, with escalating violence, with continuing attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and other foreigners, with a virtually powerless government more legitimate in the West than at home, and with 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.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, and author of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power.