The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potentially strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.
I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.
In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.
It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgeable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.
While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.
It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upper hand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.
But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”
A Brief Glimpse of Syria Six Months Ago
In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.
Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”
Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.
Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests.
On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:
“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”
“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”
The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.
The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.
Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times, is Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.
Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.
The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.
The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.
Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”
Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.
Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”
Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.