Syrian revolution aflame as West ponders
Syrian revolution aflame as West ponders
17 Jun 2011
Dr Luca Aneschi
This was originally published in the National Times 17 June 2011
As Libyan rebel forces move towards Tripoli and the Yemeni regime is on the brink of collapse, international attention is rapidly shifting to Syria, where the conflicting relationship between regime and opposition is writing yet another dramatic chapter in the 2011 Arab unrest.
The deteriorating Syrian situation is posing some difficult questions for policy makers around the world.
As the full impact of events in Syria reaches Washington, London and Paris, statements by those governments in response to the regime's violent crackdown are in stark contrast to those issued in the early stages of the Libyan conflict by the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama.
In other words, direct Western intervention in Syria appears highly unlikely, despite recent developments in northern Syria, where the situation appears to be strikingly similar to the one that led to Western intervention in Libya.
A rapidly rising death toll, a steady stream of refugees fleeing for Turkey, and a number of desertions from the Syrian Army have characterised news reports from Jisr al-Shughour; the town in northern Syria, where the epicentre of protest has shifted after the regime violently crushed popular unrest in Deraa and Hama.
There is a combination of factors - both internal and external - that I believe reduce the chances of Western powers intervening to support Syrian protesters.
To begin with, they are unsure just how much popular support there for the Syrian leadership. Any external intervention could prove to be highly unpopular with Syrians, and indeed with other Arab countries.
Despite the growing number of demonstrations that we see in the Syrian streets, protests against the regime have yet to reach a critical mass.
Significant sections of the Syrian population, including the bourgeoisie from the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, have yet to shift sides. Indeed they continue to support the regime, albeit timidly.
In the rest of the Arab world, despite the mild criticism of the Arab League, President Bashar al-Assad's regime continues to be seen as a legitimate one: if anything, the level of regional support for the Syrian leadership has recently expanded, especially after the accession to power of the new Lebanese government.
Another factor impeding the possibility of external intervention relates to a thorough assessment of a number of regime-change scenarios.
Right from the early stages of the conflict in Libya, the rebel movement emerged as a viable alternative to the Gaddafi regime. But in Syria, it has been much harder to identify any possible alternatives to the al-Assad regime – both within the spontaneous protest movement or the ranks of the regime itself.
Syria's protest movement does not have religious undertones and, so far, has not featured any sectarian tendency: secular young Syrians, disillusioned with al-Assad's promises of reforms, have made up the bulk of the protestors. Incidentally, the overwhelmingly Sunni composition of the movement inevitably mirrors the wider ethno-religious balance of the country.
And then there is the fact that here is no significant organisational force behind the movement, which, in keeping with other revolts in the region, has so far failed to produce a prominent leader.
The virtually monolithic nature of the Syrian regime – in which political leaders and the army rule in a symbiotic relationship – has thus far prevented the emergence of internal alternatives to al-Assad and in turn ensured no cracks emerge.
Finally, there are two key geopolitical factors that influence whether the international community will intervene in Syria. It is possible to detect, both within and beyond the UN Security Council, shrinking support for further involvement in the Middle East per se.
Given NATO's Libyan intervention has been far from successful it would not take much to persuade Western leaders to abstain from getting involved in Syria. In its first three months NATO's Libyan campaign – originally designed to protect the population but de facto carried out to assist the rebel movement – has failed to play any significant role in the resolution of the conflict.
On the basis of the Libyan experience, would NATO leaders seriously consider military action in Syria, especially given that the domestic situation there appears less favourable to the intervention of external forces?
Any answer to this question has to consider this fact: while France and Britain have been the key driving forces behind intervention in Libya, the large majority of military operations there continues to be carried out by US forces.
Given the extremely volatile nature of Syria's ethno-religious landscape, it is highly unlikely that President Obama will agree to send US troops to Syria, especially if protesters align themselves along a Sunni-Alawite divide. Unrest could quickly morph into a fully–fledged sectarian conflict, which would be the worst case scenario for Western powers.
It can be reasonably assumed then that, when it is assessing the costs and benefits of dealing with Damascus, the United States will put in practice the lessons learned in Baghdad, as well as more recent ones garnered from the Libyan experience.
Luca Anceschi is lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University.