Nobody can deny that Syria is in crisis. The sad thing is it may have been avoided if President Bashar Al Assad would have had the wisdom and foresight to implement political reform from the get-go like King Mohammad VI of Morocco is doing. Instead, the Syrian leader made empty promises before instituting a barbaric crackdown. He only needed to look at Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen to know that state oppression of peaceful protesters is not only morally unacceptable, it simply doesn’t work.
Syria may believe it can get away with using helicopter gunships and tanks to disperse demonstrations, torturing and killing teenage boys and making mass arrests because after all there is a precedent. In February 1982, the late president Hafez Al Assad sent 12,000 troops to quell a Sunni revolt in the town of Hama killing 38,000 residents.
But that was a different era. People in the Middle East have soaked up the heady atmosphere of ‘the Arab Spring’ and will no longer accept dictatorship or being treated like wayward children. Ironically, when Bashar Al Assad took power on the death of his father in 2000, he vowed to modernise, liberalise and reform his country but his pledges were thought to have been thwarted by his father’s old guard. It appears this intelligent, mild-mannered former eye-doctor has now succumbed to the credo of the dinosaurs.
Right now, Al Assad is on a losing wicket. If he doesn’t lance the boil by resigning, it will keep erupting. Moreover, the more blood is shed the more likely he will one day have to answer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. At the same time, he is alienating Western powers and losing friends. For instance, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once called himself Al Assad’s ‘brother,’ has described the Syrian regime’s use of violence as ‘savagery.’ He has also opened Turkey’s borders to Syrian refugees and indicated that he may be willing to back United Nations intervention.
No green light
There’s a great debate going on as to whether intervention in Syria on the lines of NATO’s action in Libya is a viable option. In any event, this is probably a moot point because recent attempts by the US and the UK to secure a UN resolution authorising anti-Syrian sanctions have been blocked by Russia and China which believe NATO has overstepped its mandate to protect civilians in Libya. A spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Office says the ‘Syrians themselves’ should resolve the situation ‘without any outside influence.’
NATO will not, therefore, receive a green light from the UN Security Council to proceed with military action in Syria, although it could potentially go it alone, as it did in the former Yugoslavia, or a Western coalition could be formed on the lines of that which invaded Iraq.
It must be said, though, that those options are unlikely. Syria, which shares a border with Israel, is not Libya. Plus, the Syrian port of Tartus is currently under renovation to host a Russian base in 2013 and Damascus is closely allied with Tehran. In any case, the American public has little appetite for further military adventures in the Middle East while NATO is already pleading for its member countries to step up to the plate in Libya.
That said, the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has ratcheted up the pressure on Syria by referring Damascus to the UN Security Council, alleging that the Syrian facility bombed by Israel in September 2007 was, in fact, a plutonium reactor intended to produce nuclear bombs; the White House has issued a statement to the effect the US will ensure Syria is held accountable; unmistaken echoes of Iraq there.
As much as I hope the Syrian people are successful in achieving their freedom, I’m with Russia on this one. In the first place, any tears shed by Washington are of the crocodile variety when the US and its allies were responsible for over one million deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq and were torturing innocent detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Any censure of Syria from that direction is the pot calling the kettle black.
Secondly, any US-led military intervention in Syria would favour Israel. As a quid pro quo, any new Syrian government would be under Washington’s heel and would be leant on to make concessions to cement peace with Israel and would, without doubt, be forced to halt Hezbollah’s weapons supplies and cut ties with Iran. That scenario would leave the Lebanese and the Palestinians, who have few bargaining chips as it is, more vulnerable to Israeli aggression than ever.
Writing in Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn says Israel “must probe for strategic opportunities—for example, a scenario in which the Al Assad regime is replaced by a pro-Western government that will cut itself off from Iran and Hezbollah.”
My heart goes out to the Syrian people but like the Egyptian and the Tunisians, they should face this challenge alone. If they open a crack in the door to those who destroyed Iraq and allow Israel absolute immunity, ‘freedom’ will come with a price tag in terms of loss of independence and dignity they may not want to pay.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.