Last weekend tens of thousands of Syrians attended the funeral of protesters killed in Friday’s demonstration against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These victims are only the last in the series of more than one thousand already killed since the Arab spring extended to this key Middle Eastern country a few months ago in March. Although initially al-Assad promised reforms in an attempt to dribble the raising dissatisfaction of the population, he has been applying from the very beginning severe crackdown methods in order to avoid the faith of colleagues in Egypt, Tunisia and Lybia.
See one of the many videos of brutal repression of demonstrations available on the Internet:
[vsw id=”EJCbKEBMMnI” source=”youtube” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]
But whereas Gaddafi’s threat to “imminent bloodbath in Benghazi” was enough to trigger the Security Council of the United Nations to vote for a resolution that allowed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya with the aim of preventing the civilian population, it seems that no such scenario is probable in Syria. And in spite of the much suffering of the civilian population, denied any possibility for democratic advances at the price of blood.
Syrian regime has not been much better and was not picky at choosing methods of repression which include tanks and helicopter guns against its own people, which so far resulted in more than 1.400 mortal casualties, on top of thousands arrested.
The question is obvious: Why intervene in Libya but not in Syria? One could easily come to conclusion of yet another case of double moral of western countries based on oil-driven interests and political bargains of some kind. However, we need to be aware that Libya and Syria are two very different countries and the reasons for western reluctance of any kind of intervention are complex. Let’s see which are the main factors, which invite the west to a much more careful and calculated decision-making than in the case of Libya.
1. Legality of intervention. As mentioned before the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya was backed by the resolution of the United Nations’ Security Council and was as such legal according to international law. This resolution was crucial; after the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising anti-western atmosphere in the Islamic world no country was prepared to send a single helicopter without the backing of the Security Council. In Syria, on the other hand, this kind of resolution is highly unlikely: whereas Gaddafi was unpopular even among the Arab leaders, the Syrian regime (for the time being) still counts with the crucial support of some key countries, particularly China and Russia, both with the right of veto in the Security Council. Also, the UN resolution on Libya was passed with the previous approval of the Arab League and the African Union (Qatar even participated in military operations), but the Arab states are not (at least not yet) willing to support any kind of intervention in Syria.
2. Military strength of Syria. The Syrian army, with approximately 325.000 regular forces and 100.000 paramilitary is much better prepared than Gaddafi’s weak 50.000-strong army, which on top has to face armed resistance by the Benghasi-based opposition. After the UN resolution there were hopes that the army would massively defect to the rebellions, but this didn’t happen. In Syria, there is no sign that the protesters would organize themselves in an armed rebellion and the army continues as a one of the cornerstones of Assad’s regime. Western countries – many of them facing economic crisis and budget cuts at home – are reluctant to start another risky and costly military adventure, particularly after the experience in Libya where the regime has proved to be more resistant than expected.
3. Possible regional impact of the intervention. This is probably one of the main reasons for lack of action by the west; the impact was limited in the case of Libya, but is very unpredictable in the case of Syria, though it is almost certain that the intervention would have long-term consequences in the region. Syria is regarded as one of the pillars of the peace in the Middle East and although it is technically still in war with Israel the Assad’s regime has avoided direct hostilities which could jeopardize its own existence. The regional balance of power is extremely fragile as it is. In this position, and compared with the uncertain result of intervention, Israel – and many western countries – naturally prefer the status quo and the relative stability offered by Assad. Furthermore, Syria’s close ally Iran could use the intervention to combat its proxy war against United States, and Lebanon, where Hezbollah keeps close ties with Syria and Iran, would be almost with complete certainty seriously destabilized.
4. Fear of disintegration of the state that could lead to a sectarian civil war. The fiasco of United States’ intervention in Iraq is still vivid and – bearing in mind the religious and ethnic diversity of Syria – a disintegration of state and civil war are a probable result of the intervention. First crack in the opposition appeared last Saturday on the opposition’s meeting in Turkey, when the Kurdish activists pulled out after accusing other participants of marginalizing them and ignoring the Kurdish issue. In addition, many opposition leaders and protest organizers refused to attend the meeting in the first place. Such disagreements could be deeply aggravated in case a state of war would ensue.
5. The West is not welcome in Syria. On the one hand, military intervention could have a positive effect for the support of Assad’s regime since this has been continuously repeating that the whole situation is a work of western conspirators. On the other hand, despite increasing protests Assad still enjoys certain support among middle classes and the support is even bigger when it comes to Assad’s foreign policy. Syrians were not impressed by NATO’s intervention in Libya and there are very few protesters who openly called for UN intervention; they nearly limited themselves on calling for foreign pressure. A recent report of the International Crisis Group concludes that,
[U]ltimately, what matters is the judgment of the Syrian people; while many clearly wish to topple the regime, others have yet to reach that conclusion. A premature determination by the international community potentially could be viewed by those Syrians as undue interference in their affairs.
What could be done to prevent the escalation of violence?
Once the option of a military intervention has been ruled out, there is a series of other instruments that could be used. In recent months the states have been stepping up the diplomatic pressure with the aim of cornering and isolating the regime. Turkey, a traditional ally of Syria, has already started calling for democratic reforms to be implemented. Unites States could play a very important role in this respect, since according to this article many countries would follow their example. Breaking up of diplomatic relations with Syria by United States and other western and Arab countries could send a strong signal to the regime and embolden the protesters.
Another instrument that could be used are economic sanctions with the objective of weakening the regime. These sanctions, however, have proved many times ineffective in the past, since they mostly hit the general population, whilst the regimes makes sure to have enough resources to maintain its vital activities. But on the other hand, they could balance the scale against Assad, due to the worsened position of the middle class – taking into account of course that the Syrians wouldn’t end up blaming the west for the poor economy. In any case, it seems that the situation in Syria will not come to rest any time soon.
This is a nonprofit explanation
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Congratulations for this accurate explanation.
One question, and excuse me in advance for my ignorance about the issue.
You explain as cause no. 1 for the non-intervention in Syria is the “Legality of intervention.” Then you mention that “the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya was backed by the resolution of the United Nations’ Security Council and was as such legal according to international law. This resolution was crucial; […] In Syria, on the other hand, this kind of resolution is highly unlikely”…
My question is: Do the no-fly zone resolution of the UN cover the current intervention of Western countries in Libya? I think not, so that wouldn´t be a strong argument for not intervening in Libya since “international legality” seems not to be on the agenda of the western decision makers…
Thank you very much in advance.
Hey, thanks a lot for the question and apologies for the small delay in my reply.
With regards to your question, the UN Security Council resolution 1973 authorizes member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force”. That basically means that the NATO and other participating countries could do pretty much anything BUT send ground occupying force (not that anyone was much interested in it since most western countries are being overstreched in Afghanistan and Iraq and consequently have to confront their voters). There have been strong rumors that the western countries have been supplying the rebels with amunition and providing them with military instructors, even perhaps sending small special units. Most likely they did, but they were very careful to deny it publicly and show the façade of neutrality.
To make it short, technically, the intervention is legal. But this affirmation should be kept pending in case solid proof will arise in the future that the resolution 1973 has been traspassed.