Ive avoided commenting about the awful situation in Syria, as theres little positive that can be said about the situation. Again, while the innocent are slaughtered the world watches on and discusses the horror by committee. But unfortunately, the opponents of the present regime are caught in trap set by competing international politics.
Why cant the West go in like we did with Libya? many ask. Well firstly because that would need a UN resolution, something that isnt going to be forthcoming due to Chinese and Russian vetoes (more on that later). Also, in order for the west to use airstrikes to topple the regime, they need to have forces on the ground to exploit these strikes and someone to take over afterwards. With Libya, they had the NTC and a number of defecting army units plus many rebel fighters. Many of the embassy staff abroad also defected to the NTC, making it relatively easy and indeed quite legal for Western governments to just recognise the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, and Gaddafi as essentially the illegitimate usurper. Much of Gaddafis supporters where either his cronies, members of his tribe or West African mercenaries.
The situation in Syria could not be more different. Syria is a secular country, with large minority groups of non-Muslims, fully 9% are Christian, as well as many Islamic sects, such as the Druze (who make up a large proportion of the military officers corps) and the Alawi (of whom the Assad’s are members). You may ask how can any Syrian support the Assad regime. Many of these minority groups and the secular middle class do support the regime as they fear the consequences of it falling and a more radically Islamist regime taking over. Recent regime change in other Muslim countries, notably Egypt, have seen massacres of ethnic minorities, Coptic Christians in particular.
So the dilemma for the west is that if the Assad regime falls, the Sunni majority could take revenge on the minorities, including many Christians. Also, theres the power vacuum. Who will take over? What if radical Islamists take over and found another Iran? One right on the border of Israel.
I would point out the chances of that happen are slim. Furthermore Iran would probably not have an Islamist government today if it werent for the oil revenues. Syrian oil output is barely sufficient to meet domestic needs so it will not provide much financial support to such a regime Meaning that after the Islamists wreck the economy it will be voted out of office or overthrown pretty quickly. But even so, naturally Western governments worry what will happen if Islamists take over.
More importantly, taking a step back, who is going to do the overthrowing? Chances are, especially if the West wanted to influence who takes over, troops on the ground would be necessary. As I pointed out before with regards to Libya, its clear NATO military advisors and forward air controllers played a key role in the downfall of Gaddafi. At the very least this or much more would be required again. After the quagmire of Iraq, I think there is little enthusiasm for western soldiers to go into another Muslim country and find themselves refereeing suicide bombing competitions.
But what about Russia? Why do they support a regime as awful as Assad? While Polonium Putin is not exactly a fan of human rights, he and Russias reputation clearly suffers from association with a murderous regime like the Assads.
It all goes back to the cold war. Back then, the Soviets were desperate to undermine Americas links with various oil rich regimes in the region (Iran (till 1979), Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, etc.) by making its own friends in the region. Many regimes from Yemen to Libya were at some point on very friendly terms with the soviets, often accepting large financial loans from the Russians for various projects, and of course buying substantial quantities of soviet weaponry.
However, it was a marriage doomed to failure. Firstly, the soviets were hard core atheists. And I mean, if you thought Richard no-god-nor-Santa Dawkins is bad, I dont believe hes ever blown up a Cathedral or deported millions of Muslims to Siberia for political crimes (sort of puts the current whining about religion under attack in prospective). Also, many of these Middle Eastern states were oil exporters, making the Russians, still the worlds largest oil producer, essential a business rival.
Consequently, one by one, every single one of these Middle East regimes eventually broke with Moscow. Some even climbed back into bed with the Americans. The only relationship that has survived to this day was Syria. Hence why the Russians are reluctant to break with the Assad regime.
The Chinese? They are playing superpower catch up and reckon that beggars can’t be choosers and hence they will make friends with and support any regime regardless of human rights abuses. And lets face it the Chinese do enough of torturing in they’re own country to hardly be in a position to lecture others. Of course the flaw in this chinese strategy is that inevitably once Assad’s regime falls, the new rulers of the country will likely punish the Chinese for their support by breaking of contact, nationalising chinese owned businesses, supporting islamist groups within china, etc. This is after all what happened to the US after the Iranian revolution.
Finally, there is Israel. While you might think the Israelis would love to see the back of the Assad’s, the truth is theyd prefer the devil they know. While yes the Assad regime have been helping Hezbollah to attack Israel, they have never been as seriously anti-Israeli as the Iranians. Such terrorism and funding of Hezbollah is more aimed at scoring browning points with Islamists, domestic politics and maintaining Syrian influence over Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah is these days less of a terrorist group and more of a Jihadi spokesmodel for Syria.
Naturally the Israelis fear the consequences of a radically Islamic regime right on their border. Such a regime would probably support terrorism much more seriously, likely leading to a war, possibly one involving ultimately the use of WMDs, of which the Syrians have an ample stockpile. And of course in the short term, theyd have to deal with millions of Christian refugees streaming across the border into Israel (which election year pressure from America would probably force them into accepting).
Finally, the West is hardly innocent here. The Bush and Blair administration co-operated with the Syrians to torture supposed terrorist suspects with its policy of extraordinary rendition. A similar, but less extensive policy was exposed when the Gaddafi regime fell. However, the rumours are that the Syrian side of these renditions make anything that went on in Libya look like the Monty Python Spanish inquisition.
The mistake of the Bush regime was to assume that such potentially damning evidence would remain safe in Syria. And the chances are that if the regime falls, much damaging information, the sort that could earn senior CIA, Pentagon and Whitehall staffers getting a free trip to the Hague, will come out (maybe even Bush and Blair will wind up in the dock!). Of course as some of these just happen to be the very civil servants advising Western governments, one has to suspect that they are probably arguing against intervention as much to save their own hides as due to any of the arguments put in above.
The unfortunate conclusions for the people of Homs are not good. They are caught in a meat grinder of international politics and there is little they can do…other than the obvious, leave their country. An Assad regime that suffers a brain drain of its top talent and international isolation will not remain in place for long. It will not save the lives of anyone tomorrow, but it will eventually topple the regime…and reward dithering regimes abroad with millions of unwanted guests…Id recommend Russia, China or Israel as good destinations!
But maybe we have to ask about the more fundamental question, is it acceptable that the worlds fiddles while a murderous government massacres its own people ?
Weve been here many times before, from Rwanda to Bosnia to Burma. Rather than waiting for a UN resolution, should we not instead have a rule allowing for military intervention against any regime that uses it military against civilians? Im not saying that countries can invade and attack in any situation where violence is used against civilans (otherwise the UK would currently be undergoing French occupation due to the summer riots!). But they are entitled to enforce a no fly zone and conduct some limited airstrikes against military targets, without any need to go to the UN. It is difficult to believe that in 2012 any regime can get away with performing the sort of medieval tyranny the Assad regime is engaged in and not suffer any repercussions.