Guest Blog: The problem with Syria, And how not to solve it

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Image © FreedomHouse

Tom Vine

Syria is in crisis, and there is much debate about how the global community should deal with the violence Syrian demonstrators are faced with from Assad’s forces. Recent developments, though, have at least offered a glimmer of hope. This week, both the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, and the Syrian Red Crescent, an aid organisation, have been allowed into the cities of Damascus and Homs respectively. But this seems to be only the beginning of a long journey towards peace in Syria.

Public demonstrations have been ongoing since March 2011; an outburst at the Assad family who have ruled over Syria since Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, became president in 1970. The Telegraph today reports that the death toll now stands at around 8,458. This is far too high a figure for us to ignore.

The solution, however, is not at all simple; and neither is the background to this brutal conflict. Syria’s current troubles began when the Ba’ath Party took over in 1963 after a military-led coup. By 1970, Hafez al-Assad had seized power, beginning the 42-year tyrannical rule of the Assad family. The government ruled with an iron fist, and democracy was unheard of. Without fail, Hafez al-Assad was re-elected keeping him in power until 2000, the year of his death, whilst multi-party elections for the legislature were outlawed.  For a population that was, and still is majority Sunni, such overtly corrupt rule by an Alawite Shia government made an uprising inevitable.

This inevitable uprising came soon after Assad’s accession to power with an Islamist insurgency, led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1976. Conflict between the Sunni insurgents and the Alawite government culminated in the Hama massacre of 1982. Under the command of Assad, the Syrian army were ordered to conduct a “scorched earth operation” against the rebels. In what has been described as one of the worst attacks of a Middle-Eastern government of its own people, initial estimates of the death toll stood at 1,000. Over time, this number has increased to the tens of thousands.

The crackdown by Hafez al-Assad’s son today is not dissimilar to the Hama massacre of 1982, exactly thirty years ago. On 2 February 2012, thousands on social media sites such as Twitter paid their respects to those that died at the mercy of the Assad government in 1982, trending with ‘#rememberhama.’ And whilst many paid their respects on the internet, Bashar al-Assad was committing equally sickening attacks on Syrian citizens. With currently 8,000+ deaths, surely something is being done?

The answer to that question is yes… and no. Yes, in the sense that the West, and specifically the EU, has set a number of sanctions on the Syrian government. These sanctions include an EU agreement to freeze the assets of the Syrian Central Bank and restrict the country’s access to the precious metals markets. This is on top of an arms embargo and the cancellation of oil and gas equipment exports to Syria. In my eyes, this surely is enough to constrain the Syrian economy enough for it to break down eventually. The key word here is eventually.

In the short-term, it seems the plight of the population of Syria sees no immediate end. This wasn’t helped by Russian and Chinese vetoes on a UN condemnation of the violence in Syria. What’s makes this situation worse is Russian interests in Syria. Last year, Russia sold $1 billion worth of arms to Syria, a number which they increased just days after vetoing a UN Security Council resolution. Without Russia’s vote (as well as China’s), which is highly unlikely after their first veto, the UN Security Council can do nothing.

Domestically, opposition forces are fragmented and currently highly ineffective. Recently, the Free Syrian Army, made up of Syrian army defectors, were forced out of the Baba-Amr district of Homs. Again, not a good sign. For as long as Assad’s opposition remains in disunity, the government will continue to have the upper hand.

After a year of bloody crackdowns by the Syrian government on peaceful protesters, remaining options are slim. Firstly, the EU and the US have talked of arming the opposition to prevent a recurrence of the Free Syrian Army being forced out of Baba-Amr. This option would greatly strengthen the resistance and would finally present Assad with a strong opposition. Yet, this option is extremely risky. History has shown that arming groups of rebels in the Middle East does not end well. Take Afghanistan for example: following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US funded rebel Taliban groups in the hope this would drive the Soviets back out of Afghanistan. As is evident today, US forces remain in Afghanistan since invading in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, fighting against the very people they armed in 1979.

A second possible option is direct intervention by the West. This is, however, extremely unlikely. And rightly so. Following the Libyan intervention by Britain and France, and hence the fall of Gaddafi, numerous politicians called the mission a success. Civilian deaths were kept to a minimum and the intervention itself was relatively swift. But, this is not a reason why intervention in Syria should be considered. First off, Libya and Syria are very different. Any conflict in Syria creates much more of a risk of civilian deaths than in Libya because the Syrian population totals 20 million, compared to Libya’s 7 million. What’s more, much of the Syrian population is packed into cities like Homs, and so if the West were to drop bombs in an attempt to topple Assad, the mission would not be so ‘clean.’ Direct intervention is how not to solve the Syrian crisis.

Evidently, solutions to this particular problem are few in number and time is running out. Bashar al-Assad seems careless in his quest to quell the uprising; he is doing everything he can to remain in power. Western intervention is definitely off the agenda, and rightly so, leaving the first option I gave as the most likely. But even that is extremely risky.

Nevertheless, talks are ongoing about how to deal with Assad. Unfortunately for the Syrian population, a solution to the crisis will be difficult to reach, and whilst we wait, Assad will continue to terrorise Syria.

This article was originally posted here on The Left Way Forward.

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