By Riad Kahwaji
Nearly 14 months has passed and over 11,000 people dead and thousands others wounded and missing and yet the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has not taken any tangible steps to stop the brutal daily slaughter by the Syrian regime against its own people who rose up against Syrian President Bashar Assad and his military junta. The UNSC managed to pass two resolutions that called for the implementation of a proposed peace plan by UN-Arab League emissary Kofi Annan, and the deployment of 300 international observers to monitor a cease-fire agreed to by the Syrian regime and the opposition forces. However, the Syrian regime is yet to adhere to the cease fire and terms of Annan’s peace plan. Syrian regular troops are still deployed in the cities and villages and bombarding rebel strongholds and opening fire on unarmed demonstrators unabated by the presence of international observers. Most analysts and observers do not expect the Syrian regime to respect the cease fire or implement Annan’s plan, especially with the continued open support it has been receiving from Russia and its strategic ally, Iran.
The United States and its Western allies have made it clear that they do not intend to intervene militarily to stop the killing in Syria, at least not without a UNSC resolution, which is hard to get due to an anticipated Russian veto. The West also ignored calls by the Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for arming the rebels and creating a safe-zone in northern Syria to allow the opposition forces to organize their ranks in their quest to depose the regime. Many observers and officials have called for repeating the Yugoslavia intervention scenario in Syria. The main reasons for the West’s reservations as explained in speeches, press interviews and statements by regional diplomats, could be summed up as follows:
- The West fears that military operations in highly populated areas in Syria could cause heavy collateral damage that could cause ahuge public outcry in the Arab world against the West.
- Arming the Syrian rebels could lead to chaos and spread of armed militias in the country, as was the case in Libya after the collapse of the regime. Israel and its lobby in the West have been pressing hard to prevent the arming of Syrian opposition to avoid spread of Islamist militias on its borders, especially in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
- The collapse of the Syrian regime could open the way to the Muslim Brotherhood to take over power in Damascus, which could place Israel in a sensitive position as it is still trying to cope with the change on its southern borders where the Muslim Brotherhood have taken control of the political process in Egypt.
- Supporting the rebels militarily could push the situation in Syrian into a civil war between the minority Alawaite Muslim sect that controls the regime and the Sunni Muslim majority that backs the uprising.
- The Syrian regime could use its ballistic missiles or some of its chemical weapons against NATO or Arab countries. There is also concern that non-conventional weapons could fall in the hands of terrorist groups.
Taking the above reasons one at a time shows that the West will likely fall victim to its own over-cautious and slow approach to the Syrian crisis. The worry of negative reaction to a possible collateral damage incident shows that the West has thus far failed to do an adequate post-conflict assessment of the NATO operations in Libya where warplanes from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates participated in the air raids on Libyan regime forces. The Arab media was overwhelmingly behind the NATO campaign, and major media outlets like the Doha-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channels clearly played down incidents of collateral damage in Libya and justified NATO’s use of force throughout the campaign. Lesson learned here is that when Arab forces are involved in a military operation demanded by Arab masses and governments, public opinion will stand behind the military campaign all the way despite some inevitable incidents of collateral damage.
Defected Syrian troops make up the majority of the armed Syrian rebels, and intensive efforts have been underway for some time by Syrian opposition leaders and Arab as well as Western officials to organize the ranks of the Syrian opposition fighters. Once equipped with adequate means of communication and are linked up in proper command and control centers it would be easy to identify the fighters and their areas of deployment. This should help keep the rebels organized in a clear structure of command that would keep them all under control and prevent their feared disintegration into militias in the post-regime era. However, leaving the rebels to fend for themselves and seek their own arms and means of fighting the regime would eventually lead to the creation of self-sustaining local militias throughout Syria, including the Golan Heights. This scenario would be the perfect one for Al-Qaeda to penetrate the Syrian opposition ranks and take control of some areas on the ground.
The continued delay in the intervention in Syria has only prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people and raised the level of public frustration amongst the masses that have become less dependent on the international community and more hopeful of a divine intervention to save them. Thus, Syrians are being driven into extremism, which will only widen the popular base of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements in the country. Secular and liberal Syrian activists who support the revolution, and have been playing a leading role in running it are quickly losing their popular base as a result of the international community’s slackness. The Muslim Brotherhood popular base in Syria was controlled due to clampdown by the regime for many years. But now it is hard to tell how the situation has become with the flow of events in the country. So once again the sloppy and slow approach by the international community could lead to empowering the Islamic parties in Syria.
As for the fear of a civil war in Syria, the level of atrocities by the regime there and its refusal to halt the military campaign will eventually push the country into civil war. Armed gangs and thugs set loose by the regime have been massacring families in various cities and town that is fueling sectarian killings. This is a method employed by the regime to blackmail the international community and Arab countries into staying out of its affairs. But it is a policy with a double-edged sword because it will lead to civil war. An international military intervention will speed up the inevitable collapse of the regime and will encourage hesitant Syrian generals and officials to defect, permitting a quick end to the Assad rule.
The Syrian regime realizes very well that using ballistic missiles or chemical weapons against NATO, Israel or Arab countries will mean its certain death. Right now the regime is betting on exhausting the international community and stripping it out of options to keep it from intervening militarily with the help of Russia and force the West into allowing it to stay in power as part of a new understanding with the opposition. The worst case scenario for the regime would be for it to escape to exile. Using such weapons against the West and its allies will mean suicide to a regime that sets survival as its top priority. Also, delay of an international intervention would open the way for extremist groups to raid chemical weapons depots after the collapse of the regime.
Even if the West intends to intervene at a certain point but is waiting for the right moment, its communication and information strategy has thus far been counter-productive and destructive to say the least. The NATO Secretary General has repeatedly come up to assure the Syrian regime that there will not be any intervention, which seen by Syrians and Arabs as a Western message of assurance to Assad to continue with his oppression. Statements by U.S. Generals and officials accusing the Syrian rebels of being infested with Al-Qaeda is also another message read by the Syrian rebels as a Western show of support for the regime’s oppression. Washington and NATO should do an immediate full revision of their communication and information strategy towards Syria – if there is a strategy to start with.
The devastating impact the fall of the Syrian regime would have on Iran has already been established by many officials and analysts. It is seen with the level of direct military, economic and political support Iran has been given to the Syrian regime. Yet, the West has been very reluctant to give any tangible support to the Syrian people who have been left alone to face the ferocity of the regime’s heavily armed forces. The will of the Syrian rebels have been too strong to be broken by the regime’s forces, and hence if the situation is left as is the Syrian crisis will slide into a prolonged civil war that will lead to the slow death of the regime and the birth of a destroyed country led by radical Islamic parties with strong resentment to the international community for abandoning it to its own fate. Then, Israel will have a real cause of concern.
The UNSC should regard the failure by the regime to implement the Annan peace plan as a violation of its resolution and should call for the activation of chapter seven to allow for a military intervention to protect the Syrian people. If Russia vetoes the resolution, then a military coalition including Arab and NATO countries should intervene as was the case in Yugoslavia to bring about a swift and controlled end to the state of chaos Syria is about to plunge in as a result of the regime’s unabated brutality.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA