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March 2012 Commentary

The Syrian Debacle

by J. L. Granatstein

There is no help on offer for the Syrian people. The armed opposition, called thugs, terrorists, and foreigners by President Assad, continues its valiant struggle. But it is their small arms against his tanks, and there is only one inevitable outcome unless outside help comes quickly. Thus far, Assad alone has been receiving substantial arms shipments from Iran and Russia.

There is absolutely no sign of real assistance to the Syrian opposition. The United Nations Security Council remains paralyzed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, enmeshed in Afghanistan, exhausted by its Libyan efforts, and with all its members facing tough economic times and declining defence budgets, will do nothing unless the United States leads, and the US, deep into its election cycle, will not do anything. President Obama’s re-election is more important than helping the Syrian people.

The Arab League talks toughly but does nothing, and the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council posture even more fiercely, but again without effective result. Muslim Turkey is very unhappy at Assad’s actions, but it has as yet done nothing to intervene, in part because both it and Syria have Kurdish populations, already restive. Yes, Western nations have slapped economic sanctions on the Assad regime, but they will take months to have real effect.

Certainly, there are few signs yet that the Assad regime is crumbling. Defections thus far have been minor, the military appears to be loyal and more than willing to shell and kill its own people indiscriminately, and Assad, blithely denying that there is any serious trouble in Syria, stalls those who plead with him to relent and negotiate. Only terrorists need fear him, he says, and he and his tame supporters in the West, including some prominent figures in Canada’s Arab community, blame foreigners for the trouble.

Why iss there no action? Why has the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, so recently applied (after a fashion) to Libya not come into force?

First, Russia and China watched carefully as the Libya operation morphed from a humanitarian no-fly zone to offering close air support to tribes pressing for regime change. They believe in state sovereignty (so long as they are the ones determining just who is sovereign), and they will not agree to grant a blank cheque to another Western-led operation that might so expand. Moreover, Syria was and remains a Russian client state, a purchaser of arms, and a provider of harbour facilities for Russia’s navy.

Secondly, Syria is a much tougher nut to crack than Libya. It has relatively modern air defences, new Russian radars, and a large, reasonably well-equipped army. Its security services are large and ruthless. Moreover, its population spread out (unlike Libya), and it sits in a critical geographic area, bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel. Action against Syria threatens the already unstable situation in the Near East.

Third, Iraq’s population is mainly Sunni (even though Assad is an Alawite, a member of a minority Muslim group) and that guarantees him the support of his co-religionists, Christians, and Shia, all fearful of the Sunnis leading the revolution. Moreover, Assad can count on help from Iran with which he sponsors the large and well-armed Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, a sign of their shared anti-Israel policy. In other words, religious differences and political alliances help make action against the Syrian regime harder to organize and coordinate.

Only if the Syrian opposition can unite and achieve a victory or two is there any possibility of it being assisted. Unity is as far away today as six months ago, and victory as a possibility seems a chimera.

No action on any serious scale thus seems possible, and R2P has been revealed as a hollow doctrine, a weapon that can be used only against the weak. Every brutal dictator who can think at all can and will draw the appropriate lesson. Stall, evade, and kill the opposition unchallenged. Unfortunately, that seems the one real lesson of the events in Syria.

J.L. Granatstein is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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