In view of the brutal violence that the government of Bashar al-Assad has waged against the Syrian people, there is a surging consensus in favour of supporting or using force in response. The reasoning is straightforward: mass peaceful protests have failed to topple a brutally repressive regime, so the solution is either to funnel weapons to the resistance and create protected zones and humanitarian corridors, or to undertake a direct international intervention.
The implicit argument that forceful regime-change is the only way to stop the killing is confirmed by the decision taken at the conference in Istanbul on 1 April 2012 by the "friends of Syria" (including the United States and dozens of other countries) to support the opposition fighters. The Arab nations pledged $100 million to pay them and Barack Obama's administration agreed to send communications equipment to help rebels organise and evade Syria’s military.
The Nato states do not want to wage a second war following that in Libya, which began as a humanitarian effort endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and ended in regime-change and the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi. But Syria's clashing internal identities and key geopolitical location in the middle east means that it presents even greater problems. Armed intervention, and possible civil war, could have serious, unpredictable results in the country and the wider region. This reluctance to intervene along the lines of the Libyan campaign further fuels the case for the alternative: to provide weapons and logistical support to the rebels and to set up humanitarian corridors and protected zones.
It is legitimate for governments and citizens from the international community to be concerned with the repression in Syria. It is logical too that some Syrians are taking up weapons. However, the moral urge to protect the victims can also conceal important factors in the situation that should be recognised: the possible negative consequences of such good intentions, the deeper motivations behind some countries' wish to see Assad fall, the cost of prematurely discarding political means to stop the killings, and the complexity of Syria's political reality (which does not correspond to a simplistic black-and-white vision, and involves more than just a brutal regime, a repressed society and a brave armed opposition).
The fallout of force
If these factors are taken into account, it seems clear that funnelling weapons to rebel groups would only intensify the conflict and give the Syrian president a pretext excuses to intensify the repression. This would confront the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab countries with the dilemma of either letting the regime further crush the uprising or intervening militarily themselves (which the provision of weapons to the opposition is designed precisely to avoid). The government would also respond by exploiting Sunni-Shi'a rivalries in Syria and tensions among other minorities (Christians, Druze, Kurds). More weapons in civilian hands would lead Syria to a mix of Lebanon in the 1970s, Algeria in the 1980s and Iraq since 2003. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already channelling weapons to the rebels, but their interest is clearly in bringing down an ally of their arch-enemy Iran and not humanitarian.
Humanitarian corridors are in principle an appealing idea, but in practice they raise many questions. How would they be implemented and protected, and how do people in flight reach them? In the early 1990s, the protected zones in Bosnia were traps for those who were escaping. After all, such corridors or protected "no-kill zones" would require foreign forces to oversee them, as well as weapons, advisors and intelligence so the rebels could safeguard them. The rebels would then use these zones as their rearguard, and the government would no longer respect them as humanitarian zones. Some of the proposals to create "no-kill zones", and from there gain ground on the Syrian government (such as that presented by Anne-Marie Slaughter, academic and former director of policy planning at the US state department) belong to the category of implausible political fiction.
The inevitable failure of the effort to deliver weapons and secure protected zones would require an aerial military intervention that would be more complicated than in Libya and could cost many civilian lives. The Syrian government would retain the support of sections of the people and of its strong, cohesive army (especially in its upper echelons), plus access to anti-air defence systems. The conditions in Libya (civilian deaths, and the proliferation of post-Gaddafi militias) raise serious questions over the effectiveness of using air-strikes to protect civilians and support militias (and in Syria it is calculated that more than 100 separate, uncoordinated groups are operating). The cautious arguments proffered by the Center for a New American Security are at present a welcome counter to the hawkish optimism of that is leading other analysts towards an embrace of a military option.
The temptation of force displaces political negotiations and non-violent strategies. The former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, now the UN and Arab League special envoy charged with negotiating an end to the Syrian crisis, is facing two linked problems: the Syrian president feels strong enough to survive, and part of the opposition and the international community say that it is impossible to negotiate with him.
Yet if Assad is wrong in thinking that he can stay in power forever, part of the opposition seems to forget that other means than violence - sanctions, isolation, delegitimisation of power and negotiations - have been used in many experiences of transition from dictatorship to democracy. But in Syria as in Libya, there is confusion between stopping the carnage and changing the political regime - and as a result, holding out for an ideal solution nullifies any chance at achieving an immediate objective, particularly ending the slaughter.
The case for caution
For many, it looks as though there is no more time to lose and no possibility of waiting: Bashar al-Assad must fall now. But political processes are not a tweet; they require time and negotiations. This is how countless struggles and transitions have unfolded. Political battles are not linear, and they usually fail when someone tries to impose them violently. To argue that force is the only means against injustice and brutality is understandable emotionally, but it may be the pathway that sends thousands of people to their deaths or in effect endorses this outcome. It would be wiser, instead, to use Kofi Annan's mission to generate a political space.
As Yezid Sayigh argues:
"Although the approach embodied in the Annan plan may be slow and painful, it crucially offers a means for the opposition to shift the confrontation from the military arena, where the regime is strongest, to the political and moral one, where the opposition is strongest. Without this, it is difficult to envisage the minority communities that are fearful of a sectarian or Islamist backlash - Alawis and Christians, in particular - and a large section of the Sunni middle class changing sides willingly".
The emphasis on immediate regime-change is shadowing other important aspects of the situation, such as how to negotiate if Assad does not fall; and even in that case, how to implement the transition. The example of Libya, where militias control the country and internal disputes could generate a Lebanon-style landscape, should be enough to be cautious about the approach of overthrowing dictators without a plan. In a revealing article about the internal opposition to Bashar al-Assad, Jonathan Steele writes:
"Whether or not Annan will be able to do anything, the real question is how a transition to a new political system can be negotiated. If negotiations succeed, could there be free elections for parliament this year? Might they result in a coalition between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baathists, creating a balance between a largely Islamist polity and a secular army, the formula which was once unique to Turkey but, thanks to the Arab Spring, has already spread to Egypt and Tunisia? We are getting ahead of ourselves. First there must be a ceasefire".
The irresponsible choice now is, surely, to provide weapons to a weak, divided opposition; whereas responsibility lies in taking a step backwards from escalating the violence, thus saving lives and infrastructure, and instead preparing for a second round with a more cohesive internal-external opposition.
The Syrian government needs a way out; the opposition needs a strategy other than sacrifice and waiting for international intervention. The proposal submitted by the International Crisis Group, which would get Russia involved in negotiating humanitarian access and promoting a transitional period, is more realistic than arming Syrian civilians or launching yet another Nato war with the support of some Arab countries. The stakes are too high to make, and repeat, big mistakes with terrible consequences.
Get our weekly email