Syria’s stalemate raises the spectre of civil war – Brian Whitaker
Assad’s opponents are putting pressure on the international community to act in Syria, but who would intervene, and how?
Syrian demonstrators burned Russian flags in the cities of Homs and Deraa this week in protest at Russia’s continuing support for the Assad regime and its blocking of a tough resolution from the UN security council.
After six months of deadly conflict on the streets in which neither side seems able to gain the upper hand, the flag-burning is one sign that the regime’s opponents are looking increasingly for foreigners to tip the balance in their direction.
At the same time, two prominent opposition figures – Samir Altaqi, a former member of the Syrian parliament, and Samir Seifan, and economist who worked on reform programmes in the early years of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency – held a series of meetings in London where they called for intervention.
Despite the carnage so far, both see the Syrian uprising on the verge of an even more dangerous phase, with civil war a strong possibility. « The uprising can’t stop – people have burned their boats, » Altaqi said in one of his meetings. If they don’t keep up their pressure on the regime, the reprisals will simply be too great.
So the prospect is continuining civil disobedience – unpaid taxes and bills as well as street protests – coupled with an increasing resort to arms. « There will be clashes within the military forces, » Altaqi said, pointing to reports of a growing number of military defectors. Meanwhile, Syrians are « very well armed in rural and tribal areas » at a family level, he said. There are also some small organised groups with weapons.
So far, waging an overwhelmingly unarmed struggle has given the protesters a moral advantage – at least in terms of international perceptions – if not an advantage on the ground. But memories of the civilian uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have now been overtaken by those of the war in Libya.
Both men acknowledged that at present there was no will internationally to intervene in Syria beyond imposing sanctions, but Altaqi predicted that it would happen eventually, either before or after a civil war. It might not be a western intervention, though: more likely by Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia, also raising the question of whether Iran might step in on the other side.
Turkey has been making warning noises for some time and Saudi Arabia has its own bone to pick with the Assad regime – mainly because of its connections with Shia Islam in the shape of Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, of course, has nothing in common with the democratic goals of the Syrian protesters (apart from a shared dislike of the Assad regime) and its intervention would be worrying.
Earlier this year, Saudi forces sided with Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family to quell largely Shia protesters there, and in Yemen, though willing to see President Saleh ousted, it is nevertheless working to preserve the general status quo. In Syria, its role could be similarly negative, as well as bringing a more sectarian character to the struggle.
Despite predicting foreign military intervention (and also urging it), Altaqi and Seifan seemed unsure when asked what form it might take. They talked rather vaguely about an old Turkish-Syrian border agreement which provides for a 5km demilitarised zone – a potential safe haven for those who oppose the regime. But protecting a 5km frontier strip that is 600km long, and providing those inside it with food, water and shelter, would be no simple task.
Aside from questions of principle, including the international « responsibility to protect », nobody has yet come up with a military proposal that looks workable and has a reasonable chance of success – which is as good a reason as any not to pin any hopes on it.
The options internationally are far more limited than they were in Libya. Merely supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, as some countries may be tempted to do surreptiously, is likely to prolong the conflict rather than hasten its end. That raises the spectre of Lebanon next door, and its 15-year civil war.
The Syrians who burned Russian flags in Homs and Deraa probably had the right idea. Pressuring the countries that still back Assad seems the best step forward at present. If a solid international consensus can be established, it will become possible to put a serious squeeze on the regime – diplomatically and economically – from outside, while others work inside until enough of the regime’s key supporters decide that the game is up.