The last two weeks have been among the most violent in the Syrian Arab Republic’s 50-year history. The international community has tried to stabilize a unified response to is perpetrators: the recalcitrant Syrian government. Meanwhile, the government has carried out military strikes in Homs and in revolutionary hotspots throughout Syria, giving Syrian protestors little choice but to defend themselves. Now, a turning point. Either the rebels revert to non-violent protest, or they mount a violent uprising against the government. A potential move against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not an issue within Syria, but demands international cooperation to reach a resolution. Especially because Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman has recently expressed interest in collapsing Iran through its only ally, Syria, there is potential for a deep problem to confront a larger set of countries than those already mentioned.
I’d like to draw attention to the urgent aspects of the situation in Syria that have been mishandled in the international community’s dealings with Syria, and probe the tensions central to its action against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The UN Security Council’s direct condemnation of President al-Assad two weeks ago suggests a collective wisdom that, if enacted, could soon mobilize aid or soldiers to assist the Syrian people. It condemned al-Assad’s brand of hostility, which betrays two deeply problematic characteristics: a suppressive and dishonest picture of Syria (to those in and outside the country) and a rhetorical promise of reform that is inconsistent with Syria’s escalating brutalization of its people, which reached its apex in the Syrian military’s recent shelling of Homs, a suburb of Damascus. These two characteristics strongly signal the need for an overthrow of the Syrian government. Since the Syrian people are struggling to arm themselves and are fighting the military, that overthrow may originate from within, but will likely need help from the outside.
Living conditions that Americans would consider givens—access to running water, electricity, telecommunications—are unavaliable to many in Syria. Resources and news coverage are declining there. Except for a recent article in the New York Times on living conditions in Damascus, foreign journalists has been unable to gather much more authentic information than a few YouTube videos and some leaked reports from Damascus refugees. People in violent areas seem to know what’s happening, but there are dwindling means for them to communicate. The intensity of the resistance will likely grow, as the Syrian citizens become increasingly agitated with their living conditions and aware that they are not able to signal for help to the world outside. Now, even Syrian citizens who don’t protest being affected by the collateral damage of al-Assad’s military crackdown, as buildings are bombed out and businesses close.
With only patchwork understanding of the issues at hand, some coherent international plan is becoming more urgently needed. In Syria, non-violent protests that once galvanized the Arab Spring will either dissolve as violence becomes the new condition of change, or be subsumed into the violent resistance, the Free Syrian Army. In latter scenario, then more and more people will fight and lose their lives as they join the violent resistance’s ranks. As Amy Davidson and other writers have noted, left to continue, what we are witnessing may be the start of a civil war in Syria. That is, the start of a war with opposing factions committed to defeating each other—not, as was the case before, a revolt to extract an oppressive dictator. Everyone with an interest in Syrian human rights is fighting time to forestall "civil war."
As the Syrians’ problems increase, setbacks in international cooperation may stymie any movement to help them.Along with the growing violence in Homs, Syria, contingent relationships between the Iranian, Syrian, and Russian governments have complicated the UN’s appeal to al-Assad. The three have configured themselves as a jigsaw: Russia vetoed the UN’s peace agreements with Syria, and Iran’s presence in Syria shows a joint resistance by both nations against an invasion or uprising. On top of this, Russia forwarded its support of al-Assad within a few weeks of its endorsement of the Iranian nuclear program, in a move that has worried the rest of the world.
One perspective, adopted by op-ed writers Yagil Beinglass and Daniel Brode, holds that Russia is trying on the outfit of a superpower, to show the rest of the world it can stake its territory. If this is the case, concession from the US or the UN Security Council would be a powerful symbolic victory for Russia. It would show its ability win at power politics and to exert influence over international affairs and the Middle East.
But Russia’s actions appear ironic. If it seeks influence over the Middle East, supporting al-Assad will make it responsible for more Syrian deaths than advancements in the region. Any “influence” would be self-defeating, and the Syrian autonomy that Russia honors has much higher stakes than whatever value is in Syria’s right to be left alone and fix matters itself. Besides, it is probably difficult for the Syrian people to appreciate non-interventionist Russia in the midst of al-Assad’s military crackdown.
Russia, thus, is using a conflicted idea of non-intervention, where it will support Syria when it can, but not aid it when it’s failing. This approach risks slowing potential change if the UN panders to it too much. Also worth remembering: Russia has given arms and alliance to Syria since the Soviet era. So, from the outside, they appear inert. Either that, or its interests are no longer ethical, let alone strategic.
In the International Herald Tribune, a Moscow journalist published a letter of apology to the people of Syria. “I’m writing to say that I’m sorry,” the letter begins, and it goes on to explain the Russian people’s own dissatisfaction with its government. “It holds power in my country because it has rigged elections and used fear to keep tens of millions of people in line for years,” and the government shows little sign of concession. Despite being “inspired…by the Arab Spring” to protest their own government, the Russian people are stuck with their own internal struggle to establish fairness in the election of their next representative. Decade-plus incumbent Vladimir Putin still campaigns to maintain his control over Russia. In this climate, waiting for Russia to agree about Syria could take too long. But the decision has another liability: before Libya ousted Gaddafi, Russia and the UN found a similar tension. The UN ultimately acted against Russia’s objections, and another steamroll could adversely affect the US relationship with Russia.
But there may be a compromise. Efraim Halevy recently published an analysis of Syria’s situation that arrives at this question—through the advocacy of a strategy of weakening through Syria, where it has a major stronghold. This is a good idea: Iran, after all, has sought quite a bit of attention in the last few weeks. Crippling Assadian Syria could be the most effective way to prevent more Iran-born oil sanctions, which would be in both the US and Russia’s favor. Perhaps another clause should be appended to Halevy’s analysis: when improved conditions for Russia come through Syria, there’s substantially less objection that Russia could make in hindsight of the overthrow of al-Assad.
Some observers wonder if the Syrian people themselves would not be the most effective source of reform. If that were the case, it would surely alleviate the UN and Arab League’s burdens. But justification for this position is weak: the consensus is that Syria’s problem is Bashar al-Assad. Fruitful reform would at least require that he step down, and his actions suggest he isn’t willing to do that. In Syria, what would reform even look like? It’s hard to imagine with all the bad blood between civil factions: the state has no gift to offer, the people no appeal to accept.
Whether it comes from the Syrian people or is effected by the UN or Arab League, a revolution—perhaps a coup—seems most effective strategy at present. But with only a tragic recent history to model itself after, revolution is a costly, controversial option for the Syrian Arab Republic. Remembering Egypt’s recent transition, it is clear: Syrians will have to work hard, even after a coup.
TYLER BOURGOISE B’13 has configured himself as a jigsaw.