In March 2011, the embers of a bloody and complicated civil war in Syria were ignited. It began with protestors lining the streets of the southern city of Deraa, angry against the regime’s torture and killing of young revolutionary graffiti artists. It soon escalated into a nationwide protest, demanding that President Bashar al-Assad stand down. Before long, the country was in civil war.
Everybody wants a peaceful solution in Syria; there would be nothing more ideal than opposition forces and President Assad agreeing to a real ceasefire, so that a democratic transition of power could take place (or even President Assad’s maintaining power, as long as the slaughter should stop). Unfortunately, this is clearly a very unlikely outcome. Peaceful negotiations have been sought and rejected by both sides since September 2011 and the violence, death toll and number of refugees has only rapidly increased since then. According to the UN, Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the sharpest increase in fatalities occurred between July and December 2012, while deaths had been somewhat static throughout 2011 and early 2012. The UN has also suggested that their death count of 60,000 may in fact be an underestimate. The likelihood of a universally committed truce seems to be growing ever more distant.
The US, UK and France are currently engaged in something of a middle-ground between non-interventionism and overt military involvement. For instance, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has promised armoured vehicles and body armour to the Syrian opposition as the EU arms embargo has been amended to allow the provision of non-lethal aid. This is admirable and Hague must be commended for this action. However, while such measures will help to protect some lives in Syria, they will not go far enough to act as a significant catalyst to the removal of President Assad or the implementation of any realistic ceasefire. This is something that Hague appears to appreciate, having said “I don’t rule out anything for the future, if this going to go on for months, or years, and more tens of thousands of people are going to die, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it is not something we can ignore”. He even goes on to say the main objection to arming Syrian rebel groups; “the risks [ of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints”.
Even if we could guarantee that the arms are held by legitimate opposition forces, we cannot guarantee that every operation conducted by these forces will be the most advantageous to ending the bloodshed, or performed professionally and effectively. Even if we could guarantee those things, the question of which of the many opposition forces to arm would still remain. The most serious rebel groups include the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (National Coalition), the Syrian National Council (SNC), National Coordination Committee (NCC) and Free Syrian Army (FSA). The “[UN Human Rights] council said it had documented instances of gross human rights abuses committed by members of various FSA groups” and the NCC reject foreign intervention. If international forces want to play an effective role in President Assad’s removal and the stabilisation of Syria, arming rebel groups is not the answer.
International forces in Syria would likely include the US, UK, France, Turkey and Jordan. The UK and France have shown willingness to aid Syrian rebels while Turkey and Jordan, countries bordering Syria, are facing an ever increasing influx of refugees from the country, so have interests in securing stability in Syria. The United States, given their large military and superior stockpiles of missiles, would necessarily need to spearhead the movement.
Perhaps the strongest reason for military intervention is the speculation that President Assad may use chemical weaponry. This would be a gross violation of human rights and one would feel that the US would be compelled to intervene, given President Barack Obama’s statement that the use of such weapons would cross a “red line” and result in a US response. President Assad is known to have chemical weaponry, and there are recent unconfirmed reports that a nerve gas called “Agent XI” has been employed by the regime; children and even babies are allegedly the targets of such grotesque attacks. The world should not sit by while such atrocities potentially loom in the headlights, fooling themselves that providing non-lethal aid to disorganised, scattered rebels is enough to prevent a humanitarian crisis on a much larger scale than the one already existent in Syria. Military intervention would not only help to prevent the use of chemical weapons now or in the near future, it would also mean that the intervening forces would be able to ensure that the weapons do not end up in the hands of unpredictable rebel or extremist groups in the region. Agent XI in the hands of al-Qaeda is not much more appealing than Agent XI in the hands of President Assad.
In terms of military strategy, a No-Fly-Zone (NFZ) would be the first step. This would minimise civilian casualties by reducing missiles and help the rebels to mobilise their forces throughout the country, without the threat of regime forces targeting them from the air. International forces could also establish “safe zones” by placing troops within rebel held areas. This would be particularly useful in the regions north of Aleppo, just south of the Turkish border, because it would help to alleviate the refugee burden on Turkey by providing an internationally protected area for refugees. It would also provide a place for rebels to meet, where talks between different rebel groups could be mediated by international forces, in order to help unify the opposition. The third advantage is that it would give the rebels a strategically advantageous base in which they could concentrate on regime forces located inside Aleppo, one of President Assad’s strongholds. Furthermore, a safe zone there could be used as a corridor to provide humanitarian aid from Turkey into areas in Syria affected by war.
Of course, one may point out that this might create an all out war between President Assad’s forces and those who intervene. However, this appears unlikely. President Assad is not like dictators such as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who vowed Libya would “fight to the last drop of blood” against Western intervention, or Saddam Hussein, claiming that “no high tower of steel will protect them [Americans] against the fire of truth,” or North Korea, who threaten America with “pre-emptive nuclear strikes”. Assad tries to tangle international forces with rhetoric, not hyperbolic, apocalyptic threats. His interview in The Sunday Times in March 2013 clearly demonstrates this. President Assad attempts to convince the international audience that he is trying to reach a peaceful solution, that he is the victim and that the opposition are “terrorists”. He says “how can we expect them [Britain] to make the violence less, while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists and don’t try to ease the dialogue between the Syrians?…They [the British government] have to act in a more reasonable and responsible way”.This interview was published in the same week that the BBC reported evidence of a massacre in the Syrian village Haswiya.
Such an attitude is strongly reminiscent of the way Radovan Karadzic tried to defend himself in The Hague, in October 2012, while standing trial for war crimes in Bosnia. Karadzic said “instead of being accused for happenings in our civil war, I should have been rewarded. And here is why: because I did everything in human power to avoid the war”. Both men accuse their opponents as being the aggressors in the conflict and solemnly maintain that they play, or played, the role of peacemakers. The only reason that President Assad has been able to carry out his vicious attacks on innocent Syrians is because he knows that, as long as the international community deliberate and do not act in any significant way, the rebels will not be able to topple his regime. The only reason he tries to play the victim in the public spotlight is because he knows that he does not have the firepower to fight against NATO forces.
It is time to recognise that, while genuine peace negotiations are always welcome, the hope that they will occur is only wishful thinking. The Syrian conflict will not end by the distribution of non-lethal aid and arming the rebels is a dangerous move. It is time for international forces to take sensible military action within Syria, with the aim of protecting the innocent, to better organise legitimate opposition and aid their removal of President Assad and his forces.
Article by Gregory Pichorowycz. Edited by Nathan Tanswell.
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