Situating Syria: An Unsolvable Crisis?

By webadmin on 11:34 am Aug 02, 2012
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Alden Hartopo

There is a specter haunting the Middle East — the specter of the Arab Spring. For nearly 2 years, that specter has entrenched its roots deep into the soil of the region, sparking violent conflicts between democracy and dictatorship. As the eyes of the world watched the revolutionizing fall of the ruling elite in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the world has once again been glued to the escalating cataclysm devastating the sands of Syria.

Rapidly progressing from peaceful protests to armed uprisings, Syria has become engulfed in what the International Committee of the Red Cross has officially defined as a civil war, binding both sides to the vulnerability of prosecution by the Geneva conventions. From suicide bombings to targeted assassinations, nearly 30,000 people throughout cities and towns have fallen victim to the violent clash that has immersed itself into the desert country. As the nation spirals towards a seemingly inevitable endgame of mutually assured destruction, the unfolding conflict has cast an unprecedented situation that has challenged the interests of the international community.

From the Western perspective, the Syrian situation is an example of a regime ruthlessly engaging in crimes against humanity. This is reinforced with the fact that CNN reports that Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby believes that war crimes are already taking place and perpetrators would be held accountable while UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her belief that “crimes against humanity and war crimes have been, and continue to be, committed in Syria.”

Situating Syria as a civil war is a relatively customary action that accurately fulfills the conditions of the crisis occurring within the nation. Defined by Stanford University scholar of civil wars, James Fearon as “a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies,” the conflict in Syria is narrowed between the Syrian National Council who seek to overthrow the authoritative regime of the Syrian Arab Republic. However, according to Lionel Beehner of the Truman National Security Project, the true purpose for such a distinction was to “push the international community to take greater notice and become more engaged.” Unfortunately, such a statement cannot be reinforced with the condition of today’s global political environment. When it all comes down, the interests of the international community has hindered any attempts at collaboration.

At the outset, many have believed that since the Syrian Civil War is a part of the bigger picture of the Arab Spring, the crisis is merely a consequent of the falling dominoes that have been generated throughout the region. In turn, the conflict can certainly be viewed as another model of the Libyan civil war. Conversely such a belief is erroneous, justified by the fact that when taken into an international context, recognition and support is firmly divided between a solid line based on interests and the democratic determination to defend human rights.

On one side lie the dual-allied giants of the Euro-Asian continent, Russia and China, who have both vetoed three attempts by the UN Security Council to propose a resolution to resolve the crisis. Their continued defiance towards international intervention, including the implementation of sanctions, is initially due to the shared belief held by both Russia and China regarding the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Such a notion is also influenced by the events of Libya.

“When everything began in Syria, I said that in light of what happened in Libya, our approach will be different,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev told the Times of London. In that previous conflict, the Russians’ chose to abstain in the proposed resolution a decision that eventually enabled the implementation of a no-fly zone within the region. Consequently, this has led to the taking of sides and civilian casualties, a move condemned by the Russian government. “The international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya,” stated Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moreover, Bloomsberg reports that following the Libyan conflict, the Russians accused western powers of “abusing the UN mandate in Libya and has warned that similar efforts to oust Assad would spark widespread sectarian violence, as the US-led invasion of Iraq did in 2003.”  

The former part of the statement does however come with a precedent and such is argued by Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column “Syria is Iraq.” Friedman explains that in the Iraq War, “America went in and decapitated the Saddam regime, occupied the country and forcibly changed it from a minority Sunni-led dictatorship to a majority Shiite-led democracy.” Likewise he states that “Syria is Iraq’s twin — a multi-sectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology.” Friedman goes on to explain that “20 percent of Syrians who are pro-Assad Alawites or Christians will be terrified of the new Sunni Muslim majority.” Such fear will undoubtedly evolve into reconciliation by the long terrorized majority which could spark a long and bloody civil war.

A different reason for the Russian refusal to comply with proposed resolutions is due to an issue of national interest through their special relationship with the Syrians. Can we blame them for stubbornly rooting to the sides of friends? Honestly, not entirely. Hypothetically, if Israel were to become involved into a parallel situation with Syria, would the US continue to stand by one of its closest allies? The answer is all too much based into the bond a country possesses with another. Russia and Syria both share the same authoritarian, anti-west regime and their cooperation is based on economic, military and even political relations. In fact, the former can be applied to the reason for China’s objections.

One of France 24’s “Observers in China” states that “dictatorships have an unspoken agreement, part of which is to unite against the international community and to not meddle in the domestic affairs of other dictatorships.” Consequently, due to such a bond, the Russian government for one has engaged into its traditional manipulation of the media to publish reports that place the Syrian regime as a victim and the rebels being responsible for massacre. Moreover, the Financial Times reports that the Russian people believe that the situation is another proxy war between their motherland and Western powers. “The government encourages this proxy war narrative, as it has a vested interest in portraying itself as the defender of a nation’s geopolitical position against the West’s perceived global expansion.”

In the eyes of the Chinese, The Washington Post points out that “China’s position mostly reflects the authorities’ own nervousness.”  This is fundamentally due to their past history involving the use of military to crackdown on activists, often involving violence to eliminate demonstrators such as in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

With the situation intensifying, US Republican Senators have been quick to call for action, demanding that action take place through “providing weapons, intelligence, and training directly to the rebels — not sitting on the sidelines and outsourcing this job to others.” A coalition of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman stated: “It is not too late for the United States to make the difference in Syria, as we did in Libya.”

Yet with the constant suppression of a concrete intervention by the international community, there is much to be recognized before approving any military intervention. First and foremost, Syria, as previously mentioned, is not Libya. Not merely within international context but also by means of military capability. Not only has the Syrian regime announced its readiness to engage in chemical warfare, CNN reports that “it has a sophisticated air defense system […] and it’s much more likely than in Libya that airstrikes and precision guided munitions alone won’t do the job. Boots on the ground may be required, too.”

The latter is indisputably a phase that the US is not too willing to engage in especially with the upcoming presidential elections where public support truly matters. After the abysmal military costs of engaging in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is in no position to engage in another costly warfare that undeniably will not involve the simplicity of military intervention in Libya. Similarly UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has reasoned that at this point, staging a military intervention in Syria was not as there “would have to be on a vastly greater scale than was the case in Libya and it would have to enjoy broad international support.”

In reality, what we are seeing in today’s world is a situation that has occurred in a moment of time where historical experience and national interests cloud the need to take cohesive action leading to the failure of diplomacy in Syria. Kofi Annan’s six point peace plan cannot succeed as both sides do not resolutely abide to its substance. Moreover, with Iran at its aid and side, the Syrian regime has proven resilient to both political isolation and international sanctions.

A unified international community is obviously a remedy for the sick man of the Middle East, yet that option is strictly unattainable in the near future. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how long China and Russia will stand defiant to any form of intervention as the Syrian regime continues to deliberately target civilians.

In the meantime, the future of Syria is highly dependent on the need to set aside interests to advocate cooperation and ensure mediation through materializing a current plan of action followed with the prospect for a broadly supported aftermath which incorporates a plan for restoration and reconstruction. Without any of such, Syria may perchance transform into another Iraq.