How do we help get rid of President Bashar al-Assad? – By Alex Spillius
Unlike the former rebels in Libya, those in Syria are fragmented and don’t control even a corner of the country.
There is one thing that everyone agrees about Syria – that President Bashar al-Assad will go. No leader can kill as many of his people in such a short time and hope to stay in power. His murderous regime has passed the point of no return. With every day that its rockets and shells demolish buildings on top of women and children in Homs, with every execution of a soldier who refuses to fire on civilians and every digitally recorded police beating, he and his ruling cabal travel further along the road of unacceptability.
What no one in the international governments determined to see him gone can quite agree on is how to hasten that end. Western nations and the Arab League invested a great deal in a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned the violence and called for a transition to democracy. A resolution would have sent a powerful signal not only to Assad but also to those around him that the world was coalescing against them. Mild though the wording was – the text contained no mention of sanctions or the specific removal of Assad – Russia and China exercised their power of veto.
Moscow feared losing its last major ally in the Middle East, an arms contract worth billions and its last naval facility outside the former Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin, moreover, did not want to appear weak before the West when he has an election to win next month. Beijing, meanwhile, was happy to ride in the slipstream of Russia’s non-interventionism.
Both powers have been rattled by the ensuing international opprobrium, but a change in their attitude soon is unlikely. So what options are left? A vote condemning Syria could be passed at the UN General Assembly but it carries less clout than the Security Council. The European Union will probably pass a twelfth round of sanctions, but as William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, admitted to the House of Commons, after banning imports of Syrian crude oil, imposing an arms embargo and sanctioning more than 100 members of the ruling elite, there are not many more arrows left in the sanctions quiver.
Mr Hague revealed that Britain has already provided training to civilian Syrian opposition groups in the documentation and reporting of human rights abuses, as well as “strategic communications”, which means mobile phones, radios and advice on messaging. He has appointed an ambassador-level diplomat, Frances Guy, to liaise with exiled opponents of the regime.
Britain will, he said, be a driving force in a new “Friends of Syria” group of nations – an international consensus reaching beyond the US, the EU and Arab League – that will coordinate economic and diplomatic pressure on Damascus. A similar group was formed against Libya’s Col Muammar Gaddafi. But the key difference is that the Libyan Contact Group’s activities were combined with the threat of force, which was authorised by the UN and succeeded in removing a despot.
So why not the same in Syria? UN resolution 1973 authorised the use of Nato air power to protect civilians in Benghazi who were at risk of annihilation by Col Gaddafi’s tanks and helicopters. Such a massacre is already taking place in Homs, and has been unfolding for months as Syrian forces have killed with impunity, taking at least 6,000 lives.
Surely there is a case for the liberal interventionism exercised in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Libya and the no-fly zones enforced to protect Kurds and Shias in northern and southern Iraq before the invasion? But military intervention in Syria has been ruled out from the start, and not just because Russian intransigence has ensured a UN resolution is out of the question. It is simply seen as too difficult and too dangerous; Syria’s army is too strong and the regime is too close to an ambitious Iran for the West to send in troops. The leadership of Assad’s sizeable forces, consisting of fellow members of the Alawi sect, has remained largely loyal.
Unlike the Benghazi-based opposition to Col Gaddafi, those Syrians determined to remove Assad do not control even a corner of the country from which to launch attacks. They are scattered and easily overpowered. Libya’s National Transitional Council was a comparatively united and competent body, with experienced generals and ministers among its senior figures. The Syrian opposition is an alphabet soup of fragmented factions beset by personal, religious and ethnic suspicions.
“They hate each other more than they hate the regime, in some cases,” says Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, who is not alone in making the comparison with hapless anti-Roman rebels in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “There is an element of the Popular Front of Judea versus the Judean Popular Front,” he says.
The Syrian National Council, the main exiled opposition group, struggles for credibility with its brethren on the ground who are facing Assad’s troops and militia. Led by a Paris-based sociologist, it is beset by disputes between Leftists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Islamist group that has won the first election in liberated Egypt.
The best known armed group, the Free Syrian Army, successfully presents itself to the world as a coordinated resistance with about 30,000 members. In reality, according to Mr Weiss and others, the armed opposition inside Syria is made up of different brigades operating more or less independently. “Some Syrians joke that it should be called the Syrian Facebook Army,” he says, because its main usefulness is posting videos of atrocities on the internet and issuing press statements.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, has become the first prominent voice to call for non-military assistance to be extended to the armed rebels. “We should be talking about logistical, communications intelligence and advice. It might not add up to a vast amount, but don’t underestimate the impact on the morale of these extraordinarily courageous people in Syria,” he says.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already rumoured to be financing the Free Syrian Army, which is struggling to defend itself with AK-47s and the odd rocket-propelled grenade. But Jordan and Turkey have so far restricted the movements of heavy weapons across their borders into Syria, fearful of exacerbating the violence.
President Barack Obama’s national security council is reportedly drafting a “presidential finding” – an executive order that bypasses Congress to sanction covert action – to be ready if and when he chooses to sign it. Most intriguingly, the United States and Turkey are said to be discussing the creation of a safe haven for rebels in north-western Syria backed by a no-fly zone as a contingency plan in case diplomacy fails to persuade the Russians to abandon Assad.
Having given up on Assad long ago, the newly muscular Turks are prepared to play a leading role as long as any robust action has the support of the Arab League, according to Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Like Libya, it would be essentially a Nato operation with Arab contributions, but with much less of a Western face.
A safe haven – an idea first presented in public by the Henry Jackson Society and backed by centre-Right foreign policy experts and former ministers across the Atlantic – would almost certainly involve military action to enforce its protection.
“The regime strategy is simple – hang on to power by killing every man woman and child that resists,” says Mr Weiss. “Either the West sits back and allows a slow-motion Rwanda to happen or it acts. We can cluck and thunder and grumble but at the end of the day there is only one thing that will stop Assad.
“I know it is difficult and Syria is not Libya. They have better air defence systems and are operating in heavily populated areas, but they are killing civilians now and if we do get involved with a fortified area, the opposition has more of a chance.”
Apart from the moral imperatives of protecting largely unarmed opponents of a murderous regime, a plan actively to aid Assad’s removal could align with the West’s strategic interests in the region. The more Britain helps in the removal of Assad, the greater the stake it will have once he has left the country, which would then be susceptible to internecine conflict between Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Kurds. Regime change is one thing, but post-Assad regime implosion would also be a disaster.
Political and public opinion may be unsure about another intervention in the Muslim world, and the question of which rebel groups to back – and how – remains opaque, but with each day, week and month that Assad and his family maintain their murderous grip on power, the case for action will become more compelling.
9:07PM GMT 07 Feb 2012